Most of the Internet is blocked here in Ethiopia just now so I’m not sure if this post will work. If it does work, this is the view from our hotel room.
I want to finish reading Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World, by Leif Wenar, in time for taking it out to Addis for Jamie, who will find it interesting. At times I found it an inspirational read, at other times it is infuriating. Why do I say that?
Well, the contents include an Introduction of 28 pages, followed by a 13 page chapter on background information, followed by a summary of the book which is 11 pages long. This is all before Part 1, and you keep thinking – just get on with it! Then there are long chapters which don’t mention oil at all, but are about the theory of international law, philosophy and human rights (the ‘rules that run the world’ of the book’s subtitle). I didn’t find these very informative, and they are full of boring repetition.
But also included are some revealing facts and perspectives. Wenar writes “What makes resource-funded clientelism astonishing is how very top-down it can be. As we’ve seen, resource rents can provide half, 80 percent, even 93 percent of government revenues. The regime gets its money directly from foreigners and so does not need the population for taxes. At the extreme, the people of the country rely on the autocrat for everything, and the autocrat relies on the people for nothing.” This is how many dictators manage to remain in power, and why democracy finds it so difficult to thrive in many parts of the world. As Wenar points out, in the West, rich people go into government, but in clientelistic countries, people go into government to get rich.
He cites various cases where separatist groups arm themselves from the spoils of natural resources (which usually, but not always, involves oil), and then rebel against the government (Indonesia, Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan), and often how foreign intrigue encourages ruinous civil war – the big example was Angola, which has large oil reserves. “At one point, Communist Cuban forces were defending American oil facilities, whose oil the Marxist-Leninist government sold to the Unites States, enabling that government to buy guns from the Soviet Union to fight American-backed rebels.”
One of the worst examples of all is Equatorial Guinea, where the ‘curse of oil’ has enabled the dictatorship of Teodoro Obiang to last for decades. A small number of people in Equatorial Guinea are immensely rich, while the general population there is mostly very poor and funding for education and medical services is almost non-existent. Who makes this continuing situation possible? Oil consuming countries acting through companies who pay for oil directly from the dictatorship. Wenar writes “Once the US government grants its persons the right to buy oil from Obiang, Obiang’s crimes become American law. The oil he steals in Africa becomes legally owned in America…” It is a very US-orientated text, but that doesn’t matter. You can substitute any country in the West and many elsewhere for the US in this instance.
Nowadays, we are often given the impression that the world is a terrible place, full of conflict and injustice. Well, to some extent it is – we are certainly more aware of conflict through our easy access to a plethora of media – but it’s not half as bad as it used to be, and I appreciated Chapter 9 of Blood Oil which pointed out that whilst in the first half of the twentieth century, tens of millions of people were killed in world wars; in the second half during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions; in the twenty-first century the worst wars kill hundreds of thousands. Fatalities from armed assaults on civilians are down since reliable records have been kept. The average lifespan is up, literacy rates are at their highest, the percentage of the developing world living in extreme poverty shrank by more than a half from 1990 to 2010. Things could certainly get better, but trends are at least in the right direction.
I haven’t yet reached the chapters which explain how the West can lead a peaceful global revolution by ending its dependence on the authoritarians who currently control and benefit from oil, so I’d better stop writing this and get on with it.
I read yesterday that the SNP have sent people over to the USA to study the social media strategies of the Trump campaign. You can’t fault their logic, which is that if you can use social media to persuade simple-minded people to vote for a nutter like Trump, you can use the same techniques to get them to vote for anything! Even the breakup of the United Kingdom. Despite a resounding No vote last time, the Scottish Nationalists have plans to conduct a second Scottish Referendum, which is why they are interested in social media techniques. Some political commentators say the chance of a second Referendum is about 50/50 which is far too high for my liking. In the meantime, there is more uncertainty, which is bad for investment and bad for many other things as well.
Next time, if there is a next time, will be worse. People have recently, through experience, become more focussed about referendum processes. If you thought that all of the lies, hatred and bad feeling that emerged last time was horrible, then you ain’t seen nothing yet.
During the last Scottish Referendum process I had friends who fell out with each other. I have to say that it was the nationalists who in each case pulled the plug on previous friendships. I remember one SNP supporting friend ranting and railing, and positively spitting out the words “But I absolutely HATE Cameron!” Unfortunately, nationalism seems to encourage such…well…it can only be called venom. Another of my otherwise relatively normal friends becomes greatly overheated at the mention of Scottish Referendums. We have agreed never to discuss the topic.
Here is what George Orwell said about nationalism: By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
So, the nationalists want to learn how to get people to vote for something as ludicrous as Trump. Possibly they will also be studying how to control the worst elements of the Trump social media campaign so that they can do the same with the cybernat trolls. Now, there are trolls on both sides, there is no doubt about that and they are all venomous, but it seems to me that there are many more cybernat trolls than there are trolls on the other side. And you don’t have to look far to find them, and what they spout is usually hatred of the worst kind. Apparently the SNP policy is now to control, discourage and haul back the cybernat trolls because they have worked out that they actually have a negative effect on the potential ‘Yes’ vote. It is horrible to think that, firstly, there are such nasty troll people out there, and secondly that they can often be reined in at will by those who can control them. But, unfortunately, with nationalism, all of this is part of the package.
It would be completely wrong for me to claim that I am no stranger to danger. I’ve not really been in particularly dangerous situations. Perhaps the most dangerous was trying to cross the main road in Cairo to get to the train station, which took Lindsey and I twenty minutes and a lot of running and dodging.
I once got on a bus going overnight to Sa Phan Sarasin. Before we set off from the bus station, some official came on board and photographed each passenger in turn, and then got off. I pondered this for a long time, but couldn’t figure out the reason. In the middle of the night the bus stopped at a cafe somewhere in the jungle and I got speaking to another passenger. “Why do you think they took our photos?” I asked. I was told that there had recently been terrorist attacks on our route, so the bus company was required to photograph everyone travelling south so that, in the event of an ‘event’, they would know who had been abducted/whatever. My bus trip was uneventful.
A few years later I was on another bus, going north from Malindi to Lamu, which had two armed guards on it, as defense against the Somali shifta. They soon fell asleep, which I took as a good sign. I reckon that nowadays, as the situation has worsened in that area, they would stay awake. I was more concerned at the time about the report that a lion had been seen swimming to Lamu Island, but we didn’t see it.
Talking about lions, we’ve heard them roar near our tent, and we’ve had to walk back from the bar at Hwange to our tent across the patch of ground where we saw four of them earlier, and we’ve had a hyena sniff round our tent in Amboseli, and an elephant feed from the branches above our tent (twice, once in Luangwa and once at Oddballs Camp in the Okavango), but nothing too serious or anything resulting in any damage.
We had an armed guard on the train going south from Wadi Halfa, but I’m not sure why.
The biggest security I’ve ever seen was more recently, in Colombo, a couple of months after the double-suicide air attack on the city. The security was oppressive. We were stopped and checked several times, there were soldiers everywhere and various barricades. But there was no trouble.
I’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, not to step outside the hotel grounds in Johannesburg that I was staying in at the time. And I didn’t. Driving around Joburg was fine, though.
I was attacked, once, in the toilets of the bus station in downtown LA, in the days when it was a violent area. My assailant was in poor shape, and I went for him with fists raised when he wasn’t expecting it, and he then backed off.
On a trip from Essaouira to Marrakesh which was stopped at a roadblock, Lindsey and I were ushered off the bus by two policemen and told to stand by the side of the road in the heat, whilst the rest of the passengers looked down from the bus windows. Nothing happened. After checking our passports the police eventually told us to get back on board.
I’ve been walking in downtown Chicago at night, but nothing happened. I didn’t even hear a single police siren.
We were burgled in Kalimbuka, one night, when we were in bed. Thank goodness I didn’t hear them at it.
All of the above incidents have happened when I’ve been on holiday, or working, abroad.
Oh, nearer to home I was on the scene during the Black Eck situation, and had a narrow escape from the Cromdale Mob, but both times got off unscathed. I was once walking along Warrender Park Terrace late at night and saw two thugs beating up a chap further up the road. They left off kicking him when they saw me, and I heard one of them say “Let’s get this one, now.” But I ducked down the steps to number 10A where I was staying at the time, before they got to me.
And that’s about it, sum total of dangerous or potentially dangerous situations that I can think of, in 65 years. In fact, I reckon that I’ve lived a pretty charmed life, with few dangers, so far. Many, many people have fared a lot worse.
I’ve thought of a few more. I was in a car accident in 1968, when Jimmy was driving myself, Fats Vernal and Ian Mac to Leicester overnight to see some girls. About forty miles out of Newcastle we came to a turn in the road and, Vernal, who was navigating, said “Jimmy, take the left…no, I mean the right!”. Jimmy swerved to the right, the car skidded and did a 180 and ended up against the wall by the side of the road. Not a great deal of damage except to one wheel, but the motor wouldn’t restart. During the 180 Skid I remember taking my specs off in case we turned over.
And once, when Lindsey and I were in Paris before we got married, we walked down a street and heard a bomb go off half a mile away. It exploded on the road we’d walked along, twenty minutes previously.
But the above doesn’t amount to much. Think about how much danger someone living in, say, Aleppo just now, faces every day. During WWII every now and then my Mum did fire duty for the bank she worked at. This involved sleeping on the roof of the bank, watching the German bombers go over to Coventry, and keeping an eye out in case one of them went off course and dropped bombs on Newark. My Dad was meantime fighting in France, until he turned a corner and realised he was facing a German tank.
Of course, nowadays there are armed guards even at Edinburgh Airport.
Even though there are various ongoing conflicts in the world, the vast majority of us, nowadays, lead mostly calm and peaceful lives.
So I sat up and paid attention when I saw the following, in the knowledge that Lindsey and I are soon to travel to the destination in question:
EXTREMELY IMPORTANT WARNING TO ALL FOREIGNERS
The entire Oromia region is engulfed with uprising. We anticipate the
situation to further intensify in the coming hours and days. We
strongly advise you NOT to travel at all. We have credible information
local government officials uprooted from villages and town are ordered
to target foreigners
Hmm. That post was on Facebook. You can’t believe everything you read on Facebook, of course. But it does sort of grab your attention.
There is currently unrest in some parts of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a history of conflict between various groups, but has been peaceful for a few years. Recently there have been protests in the Oromia region which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, and there have also been some issues in the Amhara province.
So I dug deeper to find out the present situation.
Where do you go, nowadays, for up-to-the-minute accurate travel information about potentially dangerous destinations? I’m supposed to be an ex-information professional, so I should know, right?
The most obvious place is the gov.uk Foreign travel advice: Ethiopia, which currently has a: Latest update:
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office now advise against all but essential travel to the East Shewa, West Shewa, North Shewa, Southwest Shewa, Arsi and West Arsi zones in Oromia region
And also: “There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.” That site has an RSS feed, which is useful.
That was enough for me to contact the travel guiding service I’ve been dealing with in Addis, to tell them that we now intend to fly from Addis to Arba Minch and then on to the Omo valley, where the security situation is OK. Ethiopia is a large country, some parts are completely without protests, and not going there would be similar to someone seeing problems in, say, Rome, and then saying that they did not want to go to London.
There are various subscription-based online security and safety travel services. Normally they are not aimed at individuals. Our son Jamie, based in Addis just now, seems to have occasional access to a couple of such services.
One of them recently reported: “In light of the violent events reported during the week and the general environment of unrest in the country, staff are strongly advised not to take any unnecessary risks by conducting private road travel from Addis to the Oromia region.”
And another reported: “Clients are advised against all non-essential travel to the Oromia region due to general insecurity, including an elevated threat of unrest.”
On previous travels in the past, we would have relied on word-of-mouth from other tourists. On our overland trip from Cairo to Malawi in late ’82 we had intended to go south from Khartoum to Juba, but bumped into a couple who had tried to do exactly that, and had been turned back and told that their travel permit was no longer valid due to renewed fighting in the south of the country. So we didn’t bother even trying, and flew to Nairobi instead.
I’ve been posting to the Thorn Tree Ethiopia forum recently to try to get information from other travellers, and there have been several responses. The best ones are from people who have just returned from somewhere relevant.
TripAdvisor has similar information, which I’ve been monitoring. The Ethiopia Travel Forum contains reports from folk on the ground, plus people wanting to know about the current situaion. TripAdvisor travel forums are busier than the Thorn Tree forums, but one thing I’ve noticed is that guides and travel services also often post there, and the guides, especially, tend to post that most things are safe. I’m not sure whether their reports can be completely trusted.
On Twitter there is a lot of information, but one issue is that there are variations on spelling town names in Ethiopia, so it can take a lot of time checking them all out. Sometimes the tweets can be disturbing, e.g.
Oct 4 Confirmed:- Heavy gunfire in #BahirDar Kebele 16 aka
Tana Kebele. #AmharaProtests #Ethiopia
There is no way of knowing whether this sort of thing is accurate, and it does seem to disagree with most other bits of information. BahirDar is on our list of destinations in two weeks time, and someone else has just posted on the Thorn Tree that it was completely peaceful yesterday. If we decide to go there, we will fly rather than the original plan which was to go by road.
Most tweets seem to repost the same few photos of protests. Instagram is similar in that way.
One thing which is making things difficult to keep up-to-date is that the Internet frequently goes down in Addis and elsewhere – probably because the government tries to stop reports from getting out.
The latest news is that a state of emergency has been declared in Ethiopia. Someone in the Oromia opposition said, “These are peaceful protesters who have been demanding that soldiers are pulled out. This could intensify anger”
So, we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, it is very reassuring to occasionally hear from Jamie, who says everything is quiet in Addis.
An advantage of not cycling with Fat Mac is that I don’t get drunk. With Fat Mac, it’s a case of:
“Where shall we bike to, Mac?”
“Weez kin gang tae Balerno. Ah ken ra route, an it’s doonhill baith ways!”
“Are you sure you know the right cycle-path?”
“Aye. Ah wiz oan it twa week ago. It’s braw.”
What happens is that, after a mere ten minutes, Mac stops his bike and exclaims:
“Ah’m totally loast, Rodz. Weez kin go that track instead, ah thunk. It should go tae thon bar in Cramond where they sell cheap beer.”
And we end up in the Cramond Inn. Two hours later, the inevitable has happened.
“Rodz. Ah’m rat arsed. Ah kinnae go ma bike. Weez should have anither pint an sober up.”
This is a theory that sounds plausible at the time, but has been shown again and again not to work.
Today, instead of ending up in the pub with Mac, I cycled some backroads that lead eventually to Fa’side Castle.
I can remember the castle from the early 60s, when it was a ruin.