No comment

When a politician at the centre of a scandal tells you he or she doesn’t want to comment on a story, reporters in Britain tend to write so-and-so “refused to comment”.

African papers have a different style. Julius Malema, the charismatic and controversial president of the ANC Youth League, is under pressure for allegedly making £11m from state contracts in the last two years.

The Times of South Africa called Malema about the latest allegations and quoted his response verbatim:

“Don’t you know I have a spokesman from the ANC Youth League? Stop calling me about these things, okay?”

It’s not quite as good as my favourite version of ‘no comment’, which was made by Joseph Kinyua, the permanent secretary in Kenya’s Finance ministry, to the Standard newspaper in May 2009:

“Oh no, I’m not talking to you…No! No! No”


Does Britain want a real pilot?

A real pilot? (Photo: Getty Images)

This time last year an unpopular Labour party leader with questionable personal skills was hoping to pull off a surprise election win. This was his pitch:

“When a plane has to be landed in a storm, you don’t ask if there is someone nice here,” he said. “Nor do you ask whether there is someone who looks like a pilot or talks like a pilot or once stood next to a pilot during a flight. You ask if there is a real pilot here, not a nice guy, not a back-slapper.”

Labour produced billboard adverts showing their grim-faced leader with the slogan “not friendly, not trendy and not nice.”

The leader was Israel’s Ehud Barak.

At the time the New York Times claimed it was “seen as a surprisingly successful approach.” It wasn’t. Barak was hammered. Still, I think it rather nicely sums up Brown’s spiel.

The Monocle guide to plotting a successful coup

"If only I'd read the Monocle coup guide..."

Thursday’s coup in Niger is the fifth successful putsch in Africa since 2008, after a decade in which military takeovers had become less common. The African Union, which was founded in 2002, forbade coup leaders from becoming members. “Coups went out of fashion,” says Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society. “There were leaders like Obasanjo and Mbeki who could have a word with anyone contemplating it and say ‘don’t try it’. There is nobody who is leading Africa now. The rules have been bent a bit now.”

The recent rebellions, plus a handful of failures, provide a useful blueprint to any potential coup plotter.

Know where you are going.

A Darfur rebel group that tried to oust Omar al-Bashir in 2008 drove more than 1,000 miles across   the desert to Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum on the opposite side of the Nile. Only then did they realise they didn’t know where the presidential palace was. They stopped and asked for directions, giving the Sudanese army time to regroup and prevent them crossing the bridge.

Don’t tell too many people beforehand.

Simon Mann’s notorious 2004 ‘Wonga Coup’ in Equatorial Guinea failed to get off the ground partly because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Several national intelligence agencies were fully aware of what was about to happen.

Get neighbouring countries to help.

Sudan and Chad have been supporting each other’s rebel groups for more than a decade. Laurent Kabila, who ousted Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, was backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Be careful though. Once Kabila was in power his one-time friends decided to stick around and help themselves to Congo’s minerals, which led to a new, even deadlier war.

Take control of the TV and radio stations.

Play cartoons or old films until you are ready to address the nation. In Niger the coup leaders opted for military music on the radio and live wrestling on television.

From my latest column in Monocle. The rest is here.

What Somalia’s military chiefs can learn from Ben Stiller films

"Al Shabaab won't be expecting this."

In Ben Stiller’s award-winning Night at the Museum 2 General Custer gathers his forces (which includes a six-inch tall Roman emperor and a monkey) and suggests a cunning plan of attack against the enemy (Al Capone, Napolean and Egyptian pharaoh, Kahmunrah).

“I’ll yell ‘attack’ and then we’ll attack,” says Custer. Sacagawea suggests it’s not a very good idea. Won’t they know we’re about to attack, she points out.

I’m not sure if Night at the Museum 2 has made it to Mogadishu yet. If it has, Somalia’s military chiefs should probably watch it. They appear to be following the Custer plan and, so far, there is no Sacagawea prepared to point out it’s not a very good idea.

Most of Mogadishu is currently controlled by Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, militant Islamist groups that are trying to oust the UN-backed Transitional Federal Government. The TFG presides over just a few streets in Mogadishu and only the presence of 5,000 African Union soldiers is preventing them being over-run.

TFG officials have been talking about an “imminent offensive” against Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam for months. In recent weeks the threats have become louder.

“Our soldiers have made their final preparations to deal with the security and will soon take action,” Yusuf Mohamed Siyad, Somalia’s state defense minister, told AP in early Feburary.

Last Friday, Jean Ping, the head of the African Union commission said the TFG was “gearing towards a major offensive.”

Security Minister, Abdullahi Mohamed Ali, today told the Wall Street Journal that his troops are “trained and equipped now, so they are ready to clear the rebels out of the country.”

So while the TFG and Amisom forces have been talking up the imminent attack, their opponents have been making preparations of their own.

“We have information on the planned offensive by the apostate government against the positions we control here in Mogadishu and other regions as well, and we are fully prepared to counter-attack them,” Mohamed Osman Arus, a spokesman for Hizbul Islam said.

As ever in Somalia, it is the civilians who will bear the brunt of the fighting. At least the warnings have given them time to leave – not that many residents of Mogadishu still live there.

Limousines and the UN

(Updated below)

UP, a new magazine for Nairobi, was launched earlier this month. It looks a good – a nice mix of essays about the city and a great fashion spread by Jim Chuchu. It has all the minor mistakes and growing pains you would expect from a first issue but overall looks like it has a great deal of potential.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been asked to write for the next issue.)

The adverts – fancy hotels and expensive watches – give an indication of the sort of person the magazine is aimed at: Kenyans and ex-pats with money to spend. The first advert is a little strange though. It is for Limousine Transfers, a company that does what it says. Below the picture of a smiling uniformed driver and a relaxed-looking business executive, is a quote from a satisfied customer:

“It’s funny how the madding city traffic jams seem to go unnoticed.”

Let’s leave aside the question of whether the smoothness of the leather seats or the privacy of the tinted windows will really make you feel any better about being stuck on Mombasa Road. The thing that’s odd is the identity of man who enjoys taking limos:

Dr Farouk Ali, Senior Communications Liaison; United Nations Office Nairobi

You’d think that after kerfuffles over UNEP officials driving gas guzzlers or UN bosses complaining that Nairobi is getting safer (thus losing up to $5,500 in “danger money”), its senior management would be a bit more careful about giving the impression that they spend their money – our money – wisely.

Update: According to Swamp Cottage, there is no ‘Farouk Ali’ working at the UN. Apologies. However, it begs the question: has someone at Limousine Transfers made up a fake UN spokesman to back it company?

“Ask what you have done for your country, not what your country can do for you”

"No, that's not what I meant"

What would you do if you were president for the day? That’s the question that BBC Network Africa has been asking this month and so far they have invited 12 people from across the continent to write their inaugural address.

Some of the presidents are full of serious ideas. President Tendai Sean Joe of Zimbabwe planned “to cut military spending by 50% and channel funds towards more critical sectors of the economy such as the education and health departments”. His colleague in Tanzania, President Fredrick Mtundu, said his first priority would be dealing “aggressively with all corrupt leaders who are the main source of poverty in this country. There will be zero tolerance on corruption by making sure all the greedy, selfish leaders face justice.”

Other presidents have taken a more satirical approach. BS Kanyusi of Tanzania began his speech by thanking “those who ensured my victory by whatever means necessary over my much more qualified opponents,” before outlining his plans to scrap term limits and open a Swiss bank account.

My favourite so far is Cameroon’s Johanes Fofang, whose speech is worth reading in full. I particularly like the bastardisation of JFK:

Fellow compatriots, God has given you a Messiah.

My 97% election victory ushers in a new dawn to all Cameroonians.

It gives me the powers to carry out all the reforms that I want. I cannot do this in one mandate and not even two or three mandates will be suffice.

As such, my first action will be to scrub the presidential term limit.

I will dissolve parliament and rule by decree.

My powers are sacrosanct and no opposition will be tolerated. My ministers will be drawn from my old and retired friends who have proven their loyalty to me.

Yes, it is true that the country is filled with corruption but I will arrest anyone only upon presentation of palpable proof.

Countrymen, let’s go to work having this at the back of our minds; ask what you have done for your country and not what your country has done for you.

Long live Cameroon and my limitless presidential term.

Kenya’s pride and shame

I’ve been working on a story this week about Kenya’s digital future. It’s an inspiring tale about smart young people creating new opportunities. The developers, designers and engineers using Nairobi’s new iHub, which opens next month, will all be hoping to create the next M-PESA or Ushahidi, and turn Nairobi into Africa’s technology hub.

I love working on stories like this. It’s not what we expect from Africa. It’s uplifting, it’s positive, and there’s not an aid worker in sight.

And then there are stories which make your heart sink. Five men in Mtwapa, just north of Mombasa, were arrested yesterday for being gay. A rumour had gone round that two men were going to get married. how they were going to do that when gay marriage is illegal is not quite clear. According to the BBC:

District officer George Matandura said two of the men had been found with wedding rings, attempting to get married, in Kikambala beach resort. The other three men were handed to the police by members of the public; two of them had reportedly been beaten.

A human rights lawyer criticised the police, calling the arrest “an offence, an unnatural offence, and also their behaviour is repugnant to the morality of the people.”

Oh, no, sorry. That was the police officer talking about the men he arrested.

People protest against something that has no impact on their lives whatsoever (Photo: Laban Walloga, Daily Nation)

One of the most depressing aspects of the story is the protests. People tend not to go on demonstrations here – partly because the police don’t need much excuse to fire tear gas cannisters and live bullets. But the alleged gay wedding has brought hundreds onto the streets in Mtwapa. In the past week two big corruption scandals have been on the front pages of Kenya’s newspapers. Subsidised maize that was meant to go to some of the poorest, drought-hit parts of the country, has been stolen. So too has money meant to pay for free primary school education.

Guess how many protests there have been about that.