Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The game is almost up for Mugabe

The end game is being played out for the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

The country is bankrupt; Government workers have not been paid; the main hospital in Harare has cancelled elective surgery in an effort to husband its dwindling stock of drugs; unemployment is more than 80 per cent and rising.

In recent days desperate protestors have taken to the streets in a rare show of defiance towards the country’s 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe. They were quickly dispersed by supporters of Mugabe’s Zanu PF Party, some say with the use of live ammunition.

Last week Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa made one last attempt to pull the country back from the brink.

Presenting his mid-year Budget review to Parliament, Chinamasa said that in the first six months of the year 97 per cent of the nation’s revenue went to pay the wages of the bloated Public Service. He announced plans to slash 25,000 public sector jobs and cancel the end of year ‘13th cheque’ bonus of a month’s pay which has been a tradition since colonial times.

Yet almost before the country had time to absorb this information, the edict came out from the presidential mansion overturning everything the Minister had said. There would be no job cuts and the bonus would be paid as usual.  

Chinamasa, an experienced senior lawyer who has sought to re-engage with Western diplomats and international funds, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, might have expected this — a similar move a year ago was also overturned by Mugabe.

As a result payments to Government workers throughout the first half of 2016 have often been weeks late, although the president has been keen to ensure the army and police were always at the front of the line in order to keep them onside.

Mugabe can also reply on the support of roughly 70,000 Zanu PF party members which he keeps on the public payroll. Officially public servants, they do little or no work, but can be relied on to get out on the streets to break up any sign of popular discontent with the regime.

Former Minister of Finance Tendai Biti tried to reduce the number of these ‘ghost workers’ as they are known in Zimbabwe, but ran into the same presidential opposition as his successor.

Given Mugabe’s age, discussion about the succession is rife. There is growing support for 70-year-old Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is believed to have the best chance of re-engaging with the international community and securing the investment the country so desperately needs.

However Mugabe, who seems bent on retaining control of the country from beyond the grave, favours his wife Grace (51), known for her lavish lifestyle but with little administrative experience.

A key figure in the struggle against colonialism, Mugabe became Prime Minister after independence in 1980 and president in 1987; as such he is the only leader most Zimbabweans have ever known.

He took over a nation ravaged by sanctions and civil war, but with the potential to become one of the most prosperous in Africa. Instead, decades of his mismanagement have driven the country and its people into the ground.

Under different circumstances his name could have ranked alongside Nelson Mandela as one of the heroes of African liberation. Instead he will be seen as a throwback to the feudal concept of the absolute ruler regarding the nation and its people as his personal property.

That will be the sad legacy of Robert Gabriel Mugabe — and that is the tragedy of the ruined Zimbabwe he will leave behind.       

Sunday, September 11, 2016

India groans under garbage mountain

As if India did not have enough concerns about what to do with its garbage, a recent conference in Canberra, Australia, has been told that it is now the country of choice for the illegal dumping of e-waste.

This latest mountain of trash — everything from clapped out refrigerators to last year’s smartphones — are being ‘imported’ from Western countries taking advantage of India’s ‘throw away’ culture and lax regulations.

The conference, which had the theme World Making and the Environment in the Asia-Pacific Region, was told that a staggering 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste is ending up in India.

Australian Nation University academic Assa Doron said people in Western countries liked to throw away goods and forget about them, while engaging in “pious everyday rituals of recycling”.  

However, while the West might be using India as an electronic waste dump, the country itself has to bear some of the blame for its failure to deal properly with its own domestic rubbish.

Ride on many trains in India and you will see passengers throwing drink and food cartons out of the windows. As one traveller said: “What else can we do? There is no proper disposal. If we throw it out onto the track, perhaps someone will come along and pick it up. Perhaps they will be able to recycle it.”

The Ganges River, sacred to Hindus, is still a repository for human and latterly industrial waste. The devout, who bath in it to wash away their sins, risk all kinds of infections resulting from their piety.

In recent decades central Governments have tried unsuccessfully to tackle the problem. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose constituency is the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges, was elected in 2014 with a pledge to make the river run pristine from the mountains to the sea.

However, while there have been a number of highly-publicised cosmetic clean-ups, the crucial work of building sewage works and treatment plants for the human and industrial waste dumped into the river every day, has made a faltering start.

Some observers blame the country’s stifling bureaucracy rather than Government inaction, with Modi expressing shock to close advisers at the lack of enterprise from his public servants. The PM has intervened personally to speed the process with a plan to give the job of building and running urban sewage treatment plants to the private sector, rather than municipalities.     

Back at the Canberra conference co-convener, Dipesh Chakrabarty was saying that because of their huge size India and China would be the two nations deciding the future of the planet.   

“If they don't give up on coal and fossil fuels, we're all done for," Professor Chakrabarty said.

Just another problem on the already brimming plate of the Government in New Delhi.

Monday, September 5, 2016

After Karimov? Uzbekistan in the balance

The recent death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov reminded me of a conversation I had with a commentator and former senator from that country some 16 years ago. We discussed why Karimov needed to keep such an iron grip on the country he had ruled since before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The president had just been re-elected with around 90 per cent of the vote in a process that was clearly rigged. Why, I asked, is it necessary for him to have such an unbelievably high percentage of the vote which would never happen in a fair election? Why couldn’t he be happy with say 65 per cent which would still be classed as a landslide in the West?

My companion said that if such a result was published and it was seen that perhaps 30 per cent or more opposed Karimov it would be an encouragement for “undesirable” elements in the country.

“Uzbeks have the choice between democracy and chaos or strong rule and stability and overwhelmingly they choose stability. In Uzbekistan if you go about your lawful business, raise your family, pay your taxes and keep out of politics you have nothing to fear from the Government,” the former parliamentarian said.

This supposed link between democracy and chaos has been skilfully managed by Karimov over the past quarter of a century, reinforced more recently by the need to confront Islamic extremism in a country where the majority of the population profess to be Muslim.  However, like many dictators, the Uzbek strongman saw himself as immortal and had no interest in succession planning.

The situation is complicated by the Uzbekistan’s strategic position in central Asia, which is bound to see the United States, Russia and China all vying for influence with whoever manages to take control in Tashkent.    

While a number of names are being thrown around as possible successors, an obvious choice has yet to emerge. At best this will result in a behind-the-scenes power struggle, at worst overt violence and the kind of instability that Karimov so feared.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Turkey’s plan for a Kurdish ‘buffer’

Turkey’s incursion into Syria further complicates an already tragic situation, drastically reducing any hopes of ending the five-and-a-half-year conflict and inflicting further misery on the country’s civilian population.

The message from Ankara is that the sole aim is to push Kurdish YPG forces away from Turkey’s borders in order to reduce the chances of them contributing to a Kurdish uprising in its own territory. While this may be true, there are strong indications that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may go far beyond a simple policing action.

Buoyed by the wave of support he has received at home in the wake of the failed military coup, Erdogan is using some of his political capital to drive deep into Syria in order to establish a permanent buffer zone between the YPG operations there and the separatist movement in Turkey’s south-eastern areas.

Ankara would have no interest in a complete annexation of the territory, as the YPG is claiming, as that would involve having to take responsibility for any civilians remaining there. The more likely aim would be a permanent area of military occupation where its forces would have a free hand to confront the YPG, which Turkey has long regarded as a terrorist group.

This, of course, has angered the United States, which sees the YPG as a valuable ground asset in the war against Islamic State and other terrorist groups, but Washington will not go too far in its condemnation.

Erdogan has the ability to tear up an agreement that would result in tens of thousands of refugees pouring into Europe, destabilising its institutions and maybe even threatening the European Union and NATO.

Then there is the possibility of a rapprochement with Russia. On the face of it this seems unlikely as Turkey has repeatedly called for the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Russia is Assad’s staunch ally. However, for Erdogan nothing is more important than preventing the establishment of a Kurdish State on Syrian soil.

The incursion has drawn protests from Assad, But Ankara knows these can be safely ignored. Territorial integrity no longer exists in Syria and whatever emerges from the conflict will look nothing like the nation that existed before 2011.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Farage shows Trump how it is done

It was no surprise to see former United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage on the same stage as United States presidential contender Donald Trump the other day. They are very similar men.

Both are unabashed populists, very good at telling their audiences what they want to hear; both pose as champions of the common people against a complacent and uncaring establishment; both play fast and loose with the truth.

Trump sees Farage as a shining example of how this policy actually worked during the European Union referendum campaign: Short, simple messages repeatedly hammered home to people who want to believe them. When the rebuttals come they are inevitably too complicated and anyway are produced by the contemptable elite who are never to be trusted.

Perhaps the best example was Farage’s signature claim that Britain’s National Health Service would benefit by £350 million ($A604 million) once the UK quit the EU. It was wrong; it was proved wrong time and again, but the message still resonated – slap it on the sides of enough buses and people would believe it.

Of course Farage was not around to take the consequences. After one last joyous nose thumbing at the European Parliament he left the scene, leaving the Brexit campaigners to wipe their websites and pretend the claim had never been made.

For Trump the situation is different. Having taken control of the Republican Party he has had time to think about what he said during the primaries and was beginning to wonder if he should not be more ‘presidential’. Farage was there to reassure the candidate. Never mind what you say, just keep saying it. Forget the substance, it will be drowned out by the applause.

Build a wall right across the southern border with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it. Pardon? No details, it will just happen if you elect me.

Over the past weeks there has been endless analysis of the EU referendum vote, including one article in which journalist Jeremy Fox argues that the supposed link between immigration into the UK and Brexit doesn’t stand up.

Fox found that in many cases, areas which had the least amount of immigration had the highest vote to Leave while others that had seen a considerable influx of immigrants seemed quite comfortable with the newcomers and were among the higher votes to Remain.

This left the Guardian newspaper to argue, quite reasonably, that it was the fear of immigration, not immigration itself, which was the driving force in Leave’s victory – and fear, of course, is bread and butter for those that want to ram home their points, however spurious.

Most sadly of all has been the spike in overtly racist incidents since the referendum vote, often directed towards second and third generation Britons who have absolutely nothing to do with the current immigration debate.

It may be this can of worms which will be the lasting legacy of Farage and Brexit.   

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Stop moaning, Australia was great at Rio

Growing up in the United Kingdom, one of my fictional heroes was Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track.

Every week I would wait for my Rover comic to be delivered in which Alf battled against seemingly impossible odds to maintain his career as a world-class athlete.

He hitch-hiked to major competitions after working all night; he lodged with his aunt where his bed was a mattress on the kitchen floor. Despite being short of money for good equipment, Alf always trounced the opposition and set world records for the mile (in those pre-metric days mile racing was a really big deal).

While Alf is just a story for small boys, there is more than a grain of truth in the depiction of difficulties faced by athletes at that time. Under the despotic rule of Avery Brundage, the Olympic Games were strictly amateur and athletes caught accepting money for their sport faced automatic life bans.

When the privations of a shattered Europe in the aftermath of war is considered, it is a wonder that teams from the continent were ever competitive — and no wonder that Australia with its healthy, well-fed athletes did so well in the Olympics of the 1950s and 60s, despite having a tiny population.

With Brundage off the scene and the Olympics moving towards full professionalism Australia led the way by investing heavily in Olympic success with its Institute of Sport and scholarship systems identifying its best talent.  

But the world has caught up again and Australia has slipped down the medals table in the 21st century — sixth in Beijing, eighth in London and 10th at the just completed Rio Games.

Already the recriminations are beginning. Inquiries are going to be held, fingers are being pointed; every individual failure analysed to destruction.

But hey, there are nations that can only dream about being 10th in the world. They celebrated all night in Kosovo when judo player Majlinda Kelmendi won the country’s first gold medal…ever.

They were dancing in the streets in Suva when the Fiji men’s rugby sevens took out the gold medal round, and when Monica Puig of Puerto Rico brought off what was arguably the biggest upset in Rio by winning the women’s tennis singles while ranked 34th in the world it was party time in San Juan.

So why is Australia complaining about eight golds, 11 silvers and 10 bronzes?

Australia has a population of 23 million. All nine countries ahead on the medals table have populations far in excess of that. Only a raving patriot can expect Australia to come close to the United States (318 million people to choose from), China (1.3 billion) and even the United Kingdom, almost three times Australia’s size.

Then there are the nation that could not equal Australia’s performance — hosts Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, and Canada, a similarly prosperous nation with a larger population which could manage only 20th place.

Critics will no doubt say Australia is expected to do well because it is a ‘sports mad’ country. Maybe, but so are many others. When Iceland reached the European football quarter finals, half the nation was on hand to welcome the team home. Anyone who wants to see sports madness personified should visit Eden Gardens when the Kolkata Night Riders are closing in on a win in the Indian Premier League.

Sport is enjoyed by people around the world. Australia has no claim to uniqueness in this regard.

Our interests are also spread thinly. We invest heavily in money, resources and spectator interest in Australian football, rugby league and cricket, sports that will never be in the Olympics (perhaps cricket might have a show in the future if the interest in 20-20 becomes more widespread).

Don’t get me wrong, I am not disparaging these sports which provide recreational outlets and spectator interest for hundreds of thousands of Australians. It is simply that Olympic sports like archery and beach volleyball are going to have to take their place in a long queue when it comes to resources and player interest.

The days of Alf Tupper are gone for good, but in a highly-competitive, professionalised sporting world let’s celebrate the fact Australia still punches well above its weight. We should stop whining because we are not quite up there with the United States, China and (horror of horrors) the UK.   

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

MPs, unions slam UK ‘Two Child Policy’

A proposal by the United Kingdom Government to limit child benefits to a woman’s first two children “except in the case of rape or other exceptional circumstances”, is back in the headlines after it was revealed that Civil Servants would have to interrogate victims seeking support for a third child.

Initially introduced by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, what has been labeled as Britain’s ‘Two Child Policy’ resulted in thousands signing a petition calling for it to be scrapped.

Now the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents most Civil Servants, says it is firmly against the policy and the impact it might have on its members. 

Union Secretary, Mark Serwotka spelt out his opposition in no uncertain terms. He said the PCS was very concerned over how the policy might operate both for claimants and the union’s members who would have to implement it.

“We do not think anyone should have to conduct such an interview and we would want this policy abandoned,” Mr Serwotka said.

Scottish National Member of Parliament, Alison Thewliss, who has led the campaign against the policy from the beginning, called it “draconian”.

“We think the policy on limiting tax credits to the first two children is appalling and tantamount to social engineering, but to put a woman who has been raped in a position where she needs to declare that to a Government official is just abhorrent,” Ms Thewliss said.

“This also stigmatises the child involved, which is surely against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This proposal has no place in the 21st century and should be dropped.”

Perhaps worst of all, Mr Osborne introduced the measure without any real plan as to how it might be implemented. As another Scottish National MP, Eilidh Whiteford pointed out, 85 per cent of rapes go unreported for a variety of reasons.

“Will a criminal conviction against the rapist be required?” she asked.

She believed women should not be placed in the humiliating position of having to prove they had been raped to a Government Department in order to gain benefits.

Mr Osborne is no longer Chancellor, but his successor, Philip Hammond has so far shown no sign of reversing the measure. If it is, as Ms Thewliss believes, an attempt at social engineering, then similar examples around the world suggests it is doomed to failure.

China’s One Child Policy led to a lopsided population, disruption of traditional family ties, and has now been abandoned. A mass male sterilisation campaign in India during the 1970s resulted in the Government losing office.

In fact this is not so much about trying to persuade women to have less children, and more an attempt to save money by a Government that sees itself plunging ever deeper into debt in the tumultuous years ahead.

But whatever savings have to be made they should not be at the expense of the country’s most vulnerable and innocent citizens.