Monday, April 13, 2009

Paper Planes- This is a Stick Up

MEND Rebels in the Niger Delta

This past week, off the waters of Somalia, the rapacious forces of globalization and wealth-inequality came face to face with the discontented, dispossessed and "unwashed masses" of the world. The "natives" are restless, and the old order that was able to beat them into submission has waned greatly. Better brace yourselves. Because as the effects of climate change, a breakdown in the world economic order and the destabilizing legacy of rapacious free-market capitalism take hold, the world's poor are declaring "we aren't going to starve, or go quietly into the night."

"Pirate skulls and bones
Sticks and stones and weed and bombs
Running when we hit 'em
Lethal poison through their system"--Paper Planes, M.I.A.

More after the fold...

The Somali pirates have been slain and an America captain freed. Newspapers and even the US President hail it as a victory against "thugs." Navy snipers become heroes as they kill three Somali brigands in a brief firefight and capture a fourth--who is all of 16-years-old; his dead comrades were between 17-19 years of age. But this celebrated "win" against rag-tag aggressors (young ex-fishermen and militants who faced off against the US Navy) won't solve the underlying issues at the heart of this modern "asymmetrical economic warfare."

Fractured Somalia, has suffered for decades, the country shattered by Cold War machinations and then unable to knit itself together in the postcolonial world. The one recent glimmer of hope for a stabilized state was dashed, when in 2007 the US decided to back an illegal war of aggression by Ethiopia that put Somalia under occupation of its long-time nemesis. The alleged goal was to rid the "country" of the United Islamic Courts (UIC), an alliance of religious groups that had managed to rout "warlords" who were being backed by US money and weapons--yes, the same warlords that had fought the US to a standstill in 1993; opportunity and convenience creates strange bedfellows. The US, declaring the UIC was linked to terrorism, decided that Somalis (who over all generally welcomed the religious confederation) could not be allowed to have an Islamic state--like say Saudi Arabia.

This resulted in a two year battle between indigenous insurgents and Ethiopian occupiers (who only withdrew this past February), during which hundreds of Somalis were killed. During that time the US made several airstrikes in the impoverished country in a hunt for "terrorists," which often resulted in higher civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, as this political chaos reigned, European and Asian ships continued to dump toxic waste in Somali waters and make off with hundreds of millions of dollars worth in illegal fishery. Somalia had no actual functioning government to stop this abuse, though in all fairness the functioning governments of other poor nations haven't been able to protect their waters (or their fish) from wealthy interlopers either. Pushed out of work by these inter-connected forces Somali fishermen, with the aid of normally landlocked militias, took to the seas following an age old adage: "If I can't work to make it, I'll rob to take it." And tankers making their way across nearby heavily trafficked water routes laden with goods--from weapons to food--have been hijacked and ransomed. Somalis jokingly refer to it as their "local tax." And these "pirates," who now bring in money to enrich both themselves and impoverished communities, enjoy a great deal of local sympathy and support.

"All I wanna do is (BANG BANG BANG BANG!)
And take your money"

Similar situations have occurred on the other side of Africa, where in Nigeria militant groups of young men--grown weary of exploitation and environmental devastation of their land by international oil companies--turned their guns not just on the complicit Nigerian government, but on the imported foreign workers. As recently as this past January, a group calling itself MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) took several British hostages. Their demands are that more of Nigeria's oil wealth be pumped into the region, instead of to foreign investors. Other local groups had peacefully called for similar attention to their plight in the past. But as with Somalia's ex-fishermen, it seems increasingly that cries from the "Third World" go ignored, until somebody threatens to pick up a gun.

"Our policy on kidnapping high value oil workers from Western Europe and North America remains unchanged and will continue to form an integral part of our pressure strategy in the emancipation struggle in 2009," MEND said in a recent statement.

While Somalia and Nigeria offer extreme examples where many factors converge to create desperation, there are other signals throughout the world that the poor have decided to fight back against the larger global forces they see at the heart of their suffering. In 2008, from Haiti to Burkina Faso, people pushed to the brink took to the streets as food became scarce or too overpriced. Termed "food riots," these acts of definance ranged from loud rallies to full blown rebellions. And, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has warned to expect much of the same in 2009.

Most in the "Third World" understand quite well that this food crisis is not the result of some natural disaster like a drought or a plague of locusts. As pointed out by Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute, this is a tragically man-made phenomenon:

Over the last few decades, the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have used their leverage to impose destructive policies on developing countries. By requiring countries to open up their agriculture market to giant multinational companies, by insisting that countries dismantle their marketing boards and by persuading them to specialize in exportable cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, cotton and even flowers, they have driven the poorest countries into a downward spiral.

Of course piracy, armed militants and food riots are acts of desperation that are in the end untenable, as the powerful forces of the global system will eventually come down with full fury. A more constructive channeling of these frustrations has come with less violence in other places. Central and South America, fed up with IMF structural adjustments and Milton Friedman economic policies, has seen a wave of elections that have brought left-leaning governments to power which have openly challenged the existing order and promised greater distribution of wealth. The latest has been El Salvador, which elected Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the former leftist guerilla FMLN, ending decades of right-wing US backed oligarchies.

Contrary to what many may think, this blog isn't cheering on piracy, riots and armed militants--at least not whole-heartedly. Though there is an innate temptation to root for the underdogs, history has taught us, sadly, that situations with groups of disenchanted young men, heavy weapons and lots of anger, even with the best of intentions, rarely turn out well in the long run. And besides, who wants some guy that you can barely understand waving a Kalishnikov in your face, holding you hostage and demanding some exorbitant ransom, when all you signed up for was an off-shore stint for a corporation that's probably exploiting you in turn? Neither am I asserting that these "Third World" rebels are all noble underdogs. Circumstances like these don't breed simplistic heroes for easy romanticism.

Rather my long-winded point is that instead of giving each other high-fives for offing some "bad guys" from some impoverished part of the world, we'd do well to try to put ourselves in their shoes and listen to their grievances--even if we don't wholly condone their actions. Perhaps in those places where the poor can have a voice and a space to turn away from desperation, there can be a challenge to the status quo through some type of peaceful democratic means. That of course, comes with its own challenges, because the old order does not so easily surrender power--as learned in Venezuela and Bolivia. In places where these aren't options, and a mixture of destabilizing interventions, globalization policies and rapacious exploitation continues, while the voices of the dispossessed are stifled, Somalia's "pirates" may be only a taste of what's to come. Because for the 3 billion people in the world who subsist on $2 a day or less, and the billions more who hover just above that extreme poverty, quietly starving to death is no longer an acceptable option--even if we seem fine with it.

"Some some some, some I murda'. Some, some, I let go."

Paper Planes Video


laz said...

"sharper than a swagger dagger, all metal."

freez said...

beautifully concise--you tie it all together with razor wire sharpness

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