Saddam’s Playbook in Yemen

Dozens of pro-democracy protestors were killed in Sana on Friday when they were fired upon by pro-government forces perched on rooftops surrounding the area.  This represents a significant escalation of force from pro-government forces and President Saleh declared that his security forces were not involved in the violence.

This reminded me of a tactic supported by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.  According to this document (in Arabic, summary provided by the Iraq Memory Foundation), security forces should surround a demonstration and take up elevated locations, and then shoot demonstrators with an aim of killing 95% of them, leaving the remainder for interrogation.  Pretty brutal.

Given the current situation in Yemen and across the Middle East and North Africa, the decision (if it was a decision at all) to fire on demonstrators seems curious.  It’s doubtful that any present leader would look to the late Saddam Hussein for inspiration in subduing their population – despite his “success” at holding power.  The world’s eyes are on the Middle East right now and all actions are amplified and examined with great scrutiny.  It’s possible that Saleh and pro-government forces are taking their cue from Libyan leader Muamar Qaddafi since he seems to be hanging tough (for now).

Don Gomez is a Colin Powell Fellow alumni.  He graduated from City College with a BA in International Studies in 2010.  He is now attending the School of Oriental and African Studies pursuing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Twitter: @dongomezjr

 

What to do about Cote d’Ivoire

Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo sits after his inauguration at the presidential palace in Abidjan. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

It seems like all rational attempts to end the post election/sectarian crisis in the Cote d’Ivoire has failed.In yet another bid to mediate an end to the crisis, African leaders failed to persuade both sides to negotiate an end to the conflict. President Laurent Gbagbo refused to attend a meeting in Ethiopia, and instead bared the UN from Ivorian airspace in an attempt to stop his rival from returning to his hotel holdout in the capital. Meanwhile the country continues a steady descent into chaos and civil war with fighting reported in many parts of the country, including the capital as thousands of people continue to flee into neighboring countries.

So where does this leave friend of the Cote d’Ivoire trying everything to end the suffering of the Ivorian people? The simple answer is resignation and helplessness in the face of massive atrocities against a defenseless population. The Ivorian leadership has shown itself to be brutal, inflexible, and intolerant in the face of near universal condemnation. I have personally agonized over what I see as sheer recklessness and ineptitude on the part of the Ivorian leaders to spare their people of yet another senseless conflict. It seems like they are prepared to pay any price, and ultimately bring destruction and economic ruin on an already dilapidated country. As somebody who hails from that part of the world, I find it very difficult to comprehend, even unbelievable to see Ivorian leaders, especially Laurent Gbagbo and his ministers blaming everyone but themselves for the country’s woes. I wonder how or why they have not learned anything from the madness a few years ago in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile the African Union remains divided amidst accusations that some countries are actively supplying Gbagbo with arms. Specific countries singled out are Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Angola, with support from South Africa. All of course, have denied any involvement, and continue to play the devil’s advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. ECOWAS on the other hand has failed to muster the courage to intervene by force. Since its initial rhetoric to use “legitimate force” to remove Gbagbo from power all but fizzled, the organization has lost all credibility.

The result is that Laurent Gbagbo has been emboldened, has hardened his stance, and has refused to budge. He has gone from showing signs of accommodation in previous mediation efforts to now refusing to share power with his opponents. When banks decided not to do business with his government, he simply took over their branches and detained local staff. When foreign governments opposed him, he recalled his ambassadors and expelled theirs. Last week, he took over all cocoa and coffee exports in the country from private farmers. As the country’s chief export, cocoa accounts for over 35% of government revenue.

Laurent Gbagbo and his cronies have sacrificed the economic needs, and democratic aspirations of their people in a stubborn and desperate attempt to remain in power. Whether his claims of electoral irregularities are true or not, or whether the international community and those who oppose him are right or wrong, he does have the cards to spare his people the mayhem that is unfolding. Once West Africa’s most prosperous economy, the country has been reduced to poverty and economic ruin. While I am an advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, it has become increasingly difficult to argue against using force to remove Gbagbo and his cronies from power. The massacre of unarmed women during demonstrations last week in Abidjan underscores the length Gbagbo and his thugs will go to remain in power. What a shame.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

myImpact.org

Founded by two Millennial leaders in September 2008, following the ServiceNation Summit, myImpact.org contributes to a new era of service, where serving one’s community is seen as a critical solution to solving societal problems.

Chris Golden, 21, is the Executive Director and co-founder of myImpact.org, an online platform for Americans in national and community service programs. In his role, Chris leads daily efforts to recruit partners and users to leverage myImpact.org’s social media tools in order to engage more Americans in citizenship, increase the effectiveness of service programs and demonstrate the impact of service and volunteerism.

Chris states that there is a three step approach when considering civic engagement in the era of new media:

Simple. Scalable. Social. We believe that we can engage more people in volunteerism and citizen service by sharing stories of those already involved, demonstrating their impact, and catalyzing them into action. We seek to drive offline change and advance service as a solution to societal challenges by leveraging online activity and social networks.

The first step is making it simple. Engagement is tough- there are a lot of competing demands in our time and it’s hard to prioritize. I want to take action on the causes I care about, and with the organizations that I’m a part of- but I only have so much time to give. Only so much money to donate. Only so much talent to contribute. Organizations can recognize this need by lowering the barrier to entry for the audience they are seeking to engage.

Next, context counts. I’m just one person maybe giving two hours of time to volunteer. If two people give two hours, that’s four hours. Five people, ten hours, and so on. Instead of assuming that solutions to problems are going to come from a few people working on a problem for a long time (a top-down approach), a new paradigm suggests that a lot of people working on a problem in small pieces add up to something greater than whatever would have been accomplished before.

Finally, the last step is embracing a social approach to engagement. We know that somebody is more likely to become involved if their friend tells them to do so. Today it is easier than ever to tell our friends what we are doing- wherever or whenever. By recognizing the potential, those we seek to engage have to be ambassadors of causes to their personal networks. This is an exciting prospect.

What is interesting about this approach is that it is applicable both offline though traditional engagement and online through leveraging new social media. These principles are embodied in new media tools. Twitter, for example, makes it remarkably easy to send a short message (in 140 characters or less), and allows for a lot of people to organize as a result of those messages. Just look at the revolutions happening in the Middle East for an example. New media tools like Twitter embrace openness and transparency as they allow for broadcast through social networks.”

People care about the issues that surrounds them but they sometimes do not have the resources needed to take action. Making things simple, scalable and social are critical factors in encouraging people to civically engage. With people constantly being on the go and relying on many forms of new media to interact with each other, civic engagement in the era of new media is sure to increase in popularity in the near future.

myImpact.org piloted a Twitter-based application for volunteers to record, share and track their impact in late 2010. This year, their pilot phase continues as they build towards re-launching their platform and bringing it to scale.

Follow their progress by following them on: @myImpact or facebook.com/myImpact. Also check out Chris @ChrisGolden.

Côte d’Ivoire: On the Brink

Anti-Gbagbo protester holds a machete near a roadblock and burning tyres in the Abobo area of Abidjan. REUTERS/Luc Gnago (IVORY COAST - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

A few weeks ago in an earlier blog post, we discussed the willingness of African dictators to massacre their own people, and the extent to which they are prepared to commit genocide to remain in power. I quoted an editorial from Next Newspaper, which emphasized this point, and alas, we saw the brutality of Laurent Gbagbo and the Ivoirian military last week when they turned their weapons on a defenseless crowd of protesting women ­­­, killing six. This comes on the heels of weeks of clashes between the army and demonstrators loyal to Alassane Ouatarra, the internationally recognized winner of that country’s presidential elections. We did not have to wait long for an answer to the questions I raised in the blog.

 

In the United States, criticism of Gbagbo’s atrocities against his own people has mostly been from the State department, which issued sanctions and froze some of his assets. Members of Congress have mostly been silent, except for a harshly worded rebuke from Congressman Donald M. Payne (D- N.J), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights. In his statement, Congressman Payne, who in February introduced a resolution in the House calling for respect for the democratic aspirations of the Ivoirian people, blasted Gbagbo for compounding the suffering of his people by shutting off electricity supplies to the northern portion of the country, where many residents support Ouatarra. Payne cited multiple reports that highlighted the consequences of this action, which led to the deaths of premature babies in hospitals, and forced residents to turn to unsafe water sources.

 

A few days ago, the International Crisis Group issued a powerful report making the case for military intervention against Gbagbo’s illegitimate government. According to its assessment, African nations should not be influenced by the support that Gbagbo enjoys from a small part of the population and army, but act decisively to defend the principle of democratic elections. It urged key countries in the region to unite, recalling South Africa and Angola’s attempt to prop-up Gbagbo, concluding that any proposal to endorse Gbagbo’s presidency, even temporarily, would be a mistake.

 

Meanwhile as the situation in the Ivory Coast continues to deteriorate, the humanitarian condition of its people is fast approaching a crisis level. In neighboring Liberia, a country that is also recovering from a decade-long conflict, thousands of Ivoirians have crossed the border with few resources from either the Liberian government or the United Nations. According to the United Nations, over 30,000 people have crossed the border into Liberia since the post election crisis began. This strains the few resources the Liberian government has as it struggles to provide security in the porous border region between the two countries.

Art of New Media

Not many people may consider Twitter or Facebook an art form, but consider for a moment some of the effects new media is having on the world.  These new outlets of human experience are providing an important dimension of art to the  typically detached technological realm: inter-connectivity.  In its most unadulterated form, the second by second documentation of everything from the banal to the revolutionary of new media is an awe-inspiring diary of our times.   And those who are looking to create change or awareness have at their fingertips access to the widest audience willing to provide sympathy, support, and dialogue than has ever been available before.

It is that ability to communicate a commonality of experience that compels an audience to engage and react that is so artful about new media.  That is also precisely the goal of Dance Iquail!, an organization that uses the emotional power of dance as a form of community outreach.  In the words of the founder, in the video above,  the purpose of the program through performances, workshops, and lectures is to show, “how I dealt with my experiences that somebody could be healed, or how someone else dealt with their experience that I could learn from”. Certainly, the performances highlighted in the video underscore that point;  but the only way you (the reader) and I are able to hear Dance Iquail!’s story today is through the power and distribution of new media.  So here I think we are demonstrating a dynamic and persuasive new partnership: the universally emotional response to the message of the age-old media of Dance, now able to be experienced worldwide  thanks to the art of New Media.

Tweeting into Democracy

Facebook.

“I like ‘Save Darfur’”.

Smartphone.

Twitter.

YouTube.

Whether at home or on the go, people seem to connect to someone or something all over the world. They are tweeting towards liberation. From the American point of view this expressing and mobilizing of opinion seems to embody democracy, or at least the way towards it, through encouraging everyone’s input into politics. Looking at ‘the Egypt’ of the past weeks it appears obvious: new media facilitates revolution and opens the world to everyone. This is when Clay Shirky’s recent article The Political Power of Social Media: Communications Technology Will Help Promote Freedom – But It Might Take a While published in Foreign Affairs cautions against overestimating the effect of new media.

Although only a few studies have been conducted on the effects of new media on civic engagement, this phenomenon doubtlessly offers much room for analysis. Shirky highlights two main considerations: first, a strong public sphere has to exist before social media can become a mobilizing tool. Second, the true value of social media does not lie in the transmission of news, but in communication among people directly and contact with popular media, since it compiles the common culture that most can identify with on a daily basis. These two latter entities are important facilitators for forming opinions and thus building the basis for change. For instance, the cute-cat-theory suggests that a government cannot easily censor not yet politicized culture without running into the conservative dilemma of having to be accountable towards its policies and people as well as other countries. Popular culture increasingly serves as a channel for activism. Any government that constraints seemingly apolitical culture would raise tremendous amounts of international resentment and criticism, perhaps more so than it would with political restrictions as it would interfere with the direct daily life of the people.

Even though Shirky believes this mechanism of communication and popular culture does require a government that is already kept in check and balance by a strong public sphere, I would not argue that different situations of discontent can potentially lend themselves to the initial creation or strengthening of a public sphere even in most restricted societies. It has to be provided however that the country has not suppressed communication among its people completely as authoritarian regimes become more aware of social media and respond to the power of it. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that interactions among constituents worldwide remain free, and then to let the respective countries tweet themselves into some form of democracy through their very own, established public sphere.