Tag Archives: Refugees

Mr. President, Here’s How You Prevent A Coup D’état

Protestors in Burundi following the coup attempt

Protestors in Burundi following the coup attempt

By William Akoto

Major General Godefroid Niyombareh, a high-ranking general in the Burundian army led a failed coup attempt against president Pierre Nkurunziza this past week.  Things came to a head after protests over the constitutional court’s decision to allow President Nkurunziza to seek a third term in office. The constitution allows only two terms but the president argued that his first term did not count because he was not elected but appointed by parliament. Thus, the court rule technically establishes his current term as his first, but Burundians weren’t buying it. Memories of the civil war, which killed 300,000 people and displaced millions, are still fresh in the minds of many, so when recent protests became violent, over 50,000 fled to neighboring countries. And who can blame them? Better to get out while you still can. President Nkurunziza scrambled to calm nerves, even promising that elections will be held in a free and fair atmosphere with no intimidation. Didn’t work.

Major General Godefroid Niyombare

President Pierre Nkurunziza

It wasn’t long before some sections of society began looking to the army to intervene. Usually, it is at this point that things start getting dicey. As the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya taught us, the president’s rule may be bad, but life under the army could be far worse. Once the army takes over, getting them to hand over power becomes an issue, usually requiring foreign intervention and months of negotiations. Coups also often come with curfews, roadblocks and general disruptions to businesses which could dampen GDP growth, plunging the country into a cycle of economic and business crises that are totally avoidable. Fragile developing countries like Burundi can ill-afford such disruptions and President Nkurunziza knows this. So when the leaders of the East African community called a meeting in Tanzania to address the developing crisis, Nkurunziza was all too willing to attend. And that is where he erred because the coup plans kicked into gear almost immediately after his plane took off.

Nkurunziza is not the first president to have a coup attempt made against him while he was out of the country. In December 2014, Yahaya Jammeh, Gambia’s long time strong man saw a similar attempt made against him while he was away in France. Like the Burundi attempt, that failed when forces loyal to the president rallied and fended off the poorly planned coup attempt. Other leaders were not so lucky. Deposed presidents are often thrown in jail or summarily executed. The lucky ones barely escape with their lives and have years in exile to look forward to. It is therefore not only in the interest of the incumbent but also that of the entire country for such coups to be effectively prevented. However, academics and other analysts who have examined the problem have yet to come up with a fail-safe way to insure a regime against coups. As events in Burundi have demonstrated, there are two general guidelines that incumbents should religiously stick to.

Map of Burundi in relation to Africa

Map of Burundi in relation to Africa

Firstly, the president should generally avoid significant travel outside the country when his hold on power is tenuous. This is especially the case when there are protestors on the streets. The protests could be about anything – the economy, high inflation, unemployment or some other grievance. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the signaling effect that these protests have. They show that at least a section of the public is unhappy with the status quo and wish to see it change. That is all that potential coup makers need to embolden them to put their plans into action. Leaders should instead attempt to address such issues before they arise.

Coup makers need to displace the president either by capturing him or incapacitating him in some way. To do this, they need to get past the presidential guard.  This is where the president travelling outside the country does them a huge favor because it takes both the president and a large chunk of the presidential guard out of the equation. Once this happens, taking over the presidency becomes significantly easier. Many would rather live than risk death fighting the coup makers, especially when it appears the coup is on the verge of success.

Which brings us to the second point. While the coup is underway, propaganda is king. He who controls the media controls the narrative and that is critical because once the coup attempt is launched, fear spreads and rumors abound. It’s difficult to ascertain which forces are loyal to whom, who is winning or who is in charge. This is where the media is key – and not just any media but state radio and TV. State radio and TV are often seen as the mouthpiece of the government, so control of that mouthpiece is an important symbolic indication of who is in charge. Coup makers can use propaganda on state media to demoralize loyalist forces, exaggerate the extent of their control or coerce support from the general public. The objective is to strike fear into the hearts of loyalist forces and possibly convince them that resistance is futile. So the president should ensure that security is beefed up around key symbolic state institutions such as the presidential palace and state TV and radio when things get tenuous.
Its not much but with any luck, these could help thwart any coup attempts that may be made and ensure that the president can hold on to power and prevent the negative consequences of coups.

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North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom (Part I of II)

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military leaders

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military servicemen

(Part I of II)

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 25 million that has been effectively  trapped in a Cold War mindset since the 1950s. Like his father Kim Jong-il who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has run the country through a policy of desperation, repression, and isolation, the last of which has given way to its label as the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea is governed by Juche, a political ideology of self-reliance used to justify the totalitarian military dictatorship and the idolization of its hereditary leadership. Kim il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, is the founder of Juche and still the Eternal President of North Korea despite the fact that he has been deceased for over 20 years. Worshiped like a God, the leadership of Kim il-Sung and his successors are treated as infallible, and their policies have driven the country to a draconian state in a constant humanitarian crisis with alarming similarities to George Orwell’s 1984.

Reverence to Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

Reverence toward Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

North Korea’s leaders have perpetuated a mentality of mortal fear through decades of pro-regime propaganda. The country has instilled into its populace the idea that at any moment South Korea and the ‘evil American imperial empire’ would annihilate them if not for their hard work and the sacrifice of their armed forces. The North Korean active armed forces are the fifth-largest in the world by manpower, a staggering feat considering North Korea is barely in the top 50 of countries by population. Bizarre reports from North Korea such as an official released happiness index placed them at #2 most content behind China, South Korea at #152, and the US at #203 (though the criteria and full rankings are unclear). After a trailer for the movie, “The Interview” featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen was released, North Korea’s UN Ambassador made an official complaint to the United Nations, declaring the film as “the most undisguised act of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

The conclusion of the Korean War (1950-1953) resulted in a cease-fire though not a formal peace treaty, thus technically the two countries have been at war for more than six decades. The sinking of the ROKS Cheonan navy ship that killed 46 South Korean servicemen, and the shelling of Yeongpeong Island, also in 2010, are recent skirmishes that prove North Korea is willing to push the envelope on what is acceptable in terms of brash maneuvers to embolden their own military situation. Though the rhetoric and threats far exceed the reality of the situation, North Korea has shown it is an unpredictable and temperamental thorn in the region. For example, despite an extensive array of measures, sanctions, and incentives offered to give up its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea continues to develop and test its weaponry and nuclear capabilities.

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

The reality for many North Koreans is far from the front lines, despite hosting the most heavily militarized border in the world with South Korea. Millions of North Koreans live and work in labor camps which have been compared to Nazi labor camps and Soviet gulags. The inhumane conditions are coupled with the extent of service in the camps, which can span past one’s life onto their future kin. In the relatively short span of several generations malnutrition and starvation has resulted in a marked difference in stunted health and growth between North Korean children and their neighbors in South Korea. The health emergency has become the norm in the country and the state has taken great effort to hide the scale and extent of the atrocities. The average North Korean knows next to nothing about the modern world, living in a caged country and with minimal hope for change.

Most comparable humanitarian disasters are troubled by a lack of governing authority and distribution networks. Uniquely, the North Korean government has defiantly rejected food aid many times because of the conditions dependent on halting or ending its nuclear ambitions, and its stance on the donors themselves. Its adherence to the Juche self-reliance ideal has created a paradox of being unable to sustain itself without outside help, while being ideologically  against accepting most assistance with the exception of its closest quasi-partner, China. China has seen North Korea as a buffer zone between a united Korea under Western influence, and has desired internal stability in the Hermit Kingdom over an even worse humanitarian disaster that would inevitably come with state collapse. Recently, the United Nations has tried to put additional pressure on China to change its policies towards repatriating North Korean defectors, many of whom must travel to Southeast Asia before being accepted as refugees in South Korea. The transition into the modern world for North Korean defectors is so shocking that assimilation is an extremely difficult task in itself.

While a total reformation of the North Korean political system seems the best way forward for the people of the DPRK, total state collapse would inevitably bring about chaos and tremendous consequences for the millions of refugees that would find themselves in a totally new world they have been taught to fear their entire lives.

(Part II covers the contemporary relations and future of North Korea and can be found here)

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The Syrian Civil War is Far From Over


For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post or read my preceding update on Syria.

At least 150,000 people have been killed as the Syrian Civil War enters its fourth year of fighting. The bloodshed has become so devastating and the fighting so entrenched that the United Nations has ceased formally counting the casualties because of a lack of verifiable information. Since the shock from learning of atrocities has subsided and without a major breakthrough by either side, coverage and interest in the conflict has waned. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the longer the civil war continues, the more the security of the whole region will be threatened, and the tougher it will be for millions of civilians to return to normalcy.

The total number of Syrians who have fled the country is now around three million according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as 2.6 million have officially registered as a refugee in a foreign country. For comparison, if the same percentage of people were to flee the United States that would amount to nearly 42 million refugees, more than the entire population of California. Even if the civil war were to suddenly cease tomorrow, the effects will be felt for years to come for Syrians in the country and those who have resettled regionally and internationally.

The first and second rounds of the Geneva II Conference concluded quietly in February and failed to accomplish anything meaningful. A third round is potentially in the works but there is heavy pessimism on all sides because little has changed and it seems nobody is willing to truly reconcile on key issues. In terms of chemical weapons, it is still possible for the OPCW (the Nobel Peace Prize winning organization tasked with removing the weapons) to complete their mission before the proposed deadline of mid-2014. While taking chemical weapons out of the equation is a great accomplishment and should be praised, unfortunately this is only a minor element of the war at large and will not by itself have a ripple effect in lowering violence.

Spillover from the conflict is apparent through violent attacks in Iraq and Lebanon, and is causing a constant worry for Syria’s other neighbors of Jordan and Turkey. Whether it be violence directly occurring within Lebanon, or the collapse of local markets in southern Turkey, sprawling animosities and the refugee crisis are impacting the region as a whole. International and regional aid has been fluctuating depending on the circumstances, but obviously the longer the conflict goes on the costlier it will be and the more difficult it will be to properly gain the resources necessary to rebuild.

Fighting and shelling may have subsided in some areas, but it is clear that the underlying tensions are just as pressing as ever. Without any political reconciliation or any kind of formal cease-fire, any drop in direct combat between government forces and the opposition could very well translate to an increase in irregular and indirect fighting. Unfortunately too many Syrians and international fighters on both sides are still making the choice to enter the battlefield and risk their lives instead of suing for peace or seeking alternative solutions. A cessation to the bloodshed cannot be instituted successfully without the acquiescence of fighters on the ground, and the process cannot move as quickly in the right direction without international resources and assistance.

What can be done is to not ignore or brush aside the problems of Syria as ‘business as usual.’ These are real people who may be a half a world away but deserve the world’s attention because the atrocities and the devastation have continued and will continue. A renewed effort at seeking political reconciliation and an emphasis on how little violence has accomplished thus far should be a priority. There are next to no opportunities present for either side to seriously consider putting down their weapons because the incentives to disarm have been too few, and too many grievances have not addressed. Even small, concerted efforts towards a cease-fire could have beneficial impacts in the long term. Syria will not conclude its civil war until the Assad issue has been resolved, and the opposition has presented a real alternative.


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The Central African Republic’s Crisis in the Center

CAR1On February 12th, the President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza declared war on the Christian militias, known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) for their reprisal wave of targeted killings of Muslims that has plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis. The current violence was preceded by 10 months of attacks on Christian communities by Islamic militant groups known as the Seleka. Amnesty International declared that the present offensive by the Christian anti-balaka has amounted to ethnic cleansing and has caused “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.” Altogether there are 8,000 troops, (6,000 African Union and 2,000 French) who are trying to stop the sprawling and brutal sectarian violence with another 1,000 incoming from the European Union. Tens of thousands have been killed thus far and over a million people, nearly a quarter of CAR’s population, have been displaced.

CAR2The Central African Republic is a resource-rich but financially poor country that has endured five coups and numerous smaller rebel conflicts since its independence from France in 1960. CAR is about the size of France and is located squarely in the heart of Africa on line where Muslim and Christian cultures intersect that is becoming increasingly pronounced. The country is majority Christian (estimates vary from 55-80%), and the Muslims account for approximately 15% of the population living primarily in the northeast. The exodus of such a high percentage of the Muslim community, which constituted a significant portion of the merchant class, has devastated the country’s domestic economy. Additionally, the country’s neighbors have had more than their own fair share of conflict over state control, resources, and religious schisms presenting more challenges to the refugees fleeing CAR.

The hand-to-hand brutality of the violence and ensuing chaos that has destroyed villages and communities has justifiably attracted the attention of the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon remarked that the situation has created a de facto partition of the country, and a UN force of 12,000 peacekeepers with a broad mandate has been proposed to augment the existing units in place. Though specific militia groups on both sides have undoubtedly been motivated on religious grounds, the violence has also been perpetrated for control over local areas and resources. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by various groups in CAR, though the legal process is incredibly lengthy and limited in who may be prosecuted.

The location of CAR takes place in a fragile region already rife with existing issues, from the northeast and east Sudan-South Sudan tensions, to instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south, to weak states like Chad which do not have the funds nor ability to adequately assist with such a refugee crisis. Holding the perpetrators of violent crimes responsible cannot be accomplished without some degree of stability, and the incoming peacekeeping mission aims to provide a departure from the sprawling and incessant attacks.

It will not cause a domino affect if one country in the region faces such a devastating problem as the Central African Republic currently is, but rather a ripple effect that will undoubtedly strain the stability surrounding states nonetheless.  The issues of religion and ethnicity are not being properly addressed and are too often the cause or justification of revived violence. The threat of genocide is a very real possibility if violent groups retain the ability to act with impunity, but with the consent of the government and the mandate providing further troops to stop the killings, it may very well be prevented from spreading further out of control.

In looking ahead, any and all militia groups need to be held to the same standard by the international forces, else the back-and-forth struggle of retaliatory action will continue. The proposed UN force should be approved given the severity of the situation and the potential for such heinous crimes to continue. President Samba-Panza has shown she will not tolerate obvious attacks on Muslim groups, and along with the CAR government the protection of civilians and de-escalation of conflict need to remain as top priorities. The international community should fast-track sending the necessary forces in order to quell the violence, and needs to play the vital role of investing in the refugees and infrastructure so the Central African Republic may rebound from this blight that has struck at its core.

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Syria at an Impasse

Syria3For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post, or read my latest piece on Syria

The Syrian Civil War is approaching its 33rd month, over 126,000 have now been killed in the conflict thus far, and neither side is gaining significant ground. Experts predicting the imminent collapse of the Assad regime or a routing of the opposition are few and far between as it appears increasingly unlikely that either side will be able to secure outright victory through military means alone in the foreseeable future. 

The two key dates on the horizon are January 22nd, 2014, the proposed date for the Geneva II peace talks, and mid-2014, the expected date of destruction for all Syrian chemical weapons. The expectations attached to both suggest that the status quo of continual fighting is unfortunately not likely to change.

The Geneva II talks hopes to bring together the opposition and regime with American and Russian diplomats to initiate discussion with the primary goal of ending the violence and setting the groundwork for a transitional Syria.

The negotiations at Geneva are the best chance for a breakthrough in the conflict since little is changing on the battlefield. However, there have already been significant issues that make the Geneva prospects look less than promising. The talks have been pushed back multiple times, and while the regime says Assad stepping down is out of the question, the opposition has reiterated time and time again a Syria without Assad is their top demand moving forward.

While both Assad and the Syrian National Coalition have skeptically agreed to attend the Geneva II talks, unless they can set aside the leadership issue it is tough to imagine anything productive may be accomplished at all. Small steps towards reducing violence, such as the safe passage of refugees and the protection of civilians should take precedence over future political settlements in the negotiations.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission to remove all chemical weapons from Syria is on track thus far, having destroyed all the means of production. However they have set a goal of mid-2014 to eliminate all weapons which implies that even the international powers who signed on to their mission don’t expect the conflict to end for at least another half a year.

While strategic towns and supply lines continue to exchange hands back and forth between the regime and the opposition, neither side is making serious progress against the other. Instead the war is spilling over further into Lebanon and the death toll continues to rise. Recently, the lack of medical care has become so disastrous cases of polio have reemerged after the disease was eradicated from Syria more than ten years prior.

All this proves that the political settlement should take a backseat to basic humanitarian concerns. At this point, even if Assad were to suddenly disappear from the scene and the regime were to immediately collapse, the result would be further jockeying for power among the opposition groups. On one hand, Assad should recognize that he will never preside over a stable Syria again and change his tactics accordingly to consider a future without him at the top. On the other, the opposition should realize that their efforts thus far at trying to defeat Assad outright have fallen short. If they cannot present themselves as a legitimate opposition and minimize the extremist factions also countering the regime, their alternative Syria isn’t assuredly better than one with Assad.

The US, Russia, and Syrian actors involved should focus Geneva II on the critical needs of civilians first. Reducing the fighting is paramount, and advantageous to the rebels especially. A basic framework, excluding contentious issues like Assad’s role, should be sought, because focusing too much on the deeper political future of Syria could derail the discussion completely. If the opposition really is serious about a Syria without Assad, they should begin preparing for it constructively outside of the battlefield.


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Lebanon’s Growing Refugee Crisis

Lebanon1In early September, the number of external refugees from the Syrian Civil War topped two million and a little over a month later the number continues to steadily rise. The number of internally displaced civilians is also alarmingly high at over 5 million. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres declared that the conflict had devolved into, “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”  Lebanon has been received the most refugees out of Syria and is now facing its own internal crisis in in trying to aid the hundreds of thousands fleeing into its territory.

At the onset of the Syrian Civil War, Lebanon had two major positions in regards to the crisis. First, it would not become involved directly in the conflict and secondly, they would not deny entry to any refugees entering into Lebanon from Syria. Lebanon is a country of only around 4 million to begin with, and the UN tally reports that over one in three of all Syrian external refugees are in Lebanon. Thus the nearly 800,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon account for over one-fifth of the country’s population.

The majority of refugees both in Lebanon and in neighboring countries are women and children. Over one-fourth of the housing for refugees within Lebanon is substandard and housing prices in Lebanon are much higher than in Syria. More than 70% of families have at least one child out of school, and the language differences play a major role. (Syrian children are more often taught Arabic in school, Lebanese students primarily take lessons in French or English). Lebanese have opened their homes for many refugees, but such assistance is expected to last only temporarily as there is already such a great strain on the country. Furthermore, there is discrimination and conflict within the refugee community in Lebanon between Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees.

(Much of the above information in the above paragraph was taken from an American Near East Refugee Aid presentation)

Concerns over the situation in Lebanon are growing and some analysts have already referred to the situation as nearing a breaking point. Infrastructure and food shortage fears have risen, but so far Lebanon has been able to marginally cope thanks to international assistance. A World Bank Report estimated that the effects of the Syrian Civil War will double Lebanon’s unemployment and cost it $7.5 billion dollars in cumulative losses by the end of 2013. Statistics are one thing, but what will be more telling is how Lebanon is able to withstand supporting such an incredibly large refugee population in the long run. While it is unlikely that the situation will completely break down in the near future, the strain of millions of Syrian refugees will test the stability of Lebanon over time. The longer that the civil war remains unresolved, the more and more Lebanon will have to rely on the international community in supporting its Syrian guests.

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