On Africa’s Elephants, Black and White

NAIROBI, Kenya - This dispatch was meant to be about saving the noble elephant. But after a hard look at Africa today, with an eye on the narrow worldview of ignoble pachyderms in America, the focus shifted to jackals and hyenas.

Consider Kenya, a once and future hope as a model for an enlightened dark continent. It throbs with potential. Young people with fresh ideas join an old guard in transforming it beyond recognition. Yet despite its outspoken courts and critics, it is shot through with corruption.

Those endangered black elephants are, in fact, making a comeback. Asian appetites for ivory are waning. Young Kenyans are taught to protect their wildlife heritage. The problem is white elephants, giant dubious schemes with ample opportunity for skimming off the top.

Plunder is old news in Africa. Since winds of change brought independence in the 1960s, uncounted billions in public funds have vanished into private pockets. Now, however, plunder is organized and obvious, an entrenched component of global geopolitics.

Kenya is hardly the worst case, but it illustrates clearly new winner-eat-all directions across sub-Saharan Africa.

Washington, thinking small, is slashing vital development aid in favor of private deals that enrich U.S. companies. That enables China, thinking big, to recolonize Africa, securing vast repositories of raw materials, minerals, oil and arable land vital to its manifest destiny.

Western aid to Africa requires transparency and protection of human rights. China simply pays the price of admission, adding off-the-books incentives. At a summit in Beijing, Xi Jinping just pledged another $16 billion to Africa in grants and loans that put recipients in his debt.

Previous U.S. administrations helped journalists track hijacked aid, and the State Department weighed in if authorities got tough with them. Donald Trump changed that. His signature phrase, fake news, is a godsend to any government eager to muzzle its press.

"I'm following so many scandals I can't keep track of them," a skilled Kenyan investigative reporter told me. "You can't follow the money when it's cash stuffed in briefcases or if it disappears in mysterious shell companies and foreign bank accounts."


Read More

Not Tocqueville After All These Years

CALABASH, North Carolina – It was no surprise that a roomful of adults turned to a 9-year-old to demystify the computerized kitchen range at our rented beach house near here. But it was flat-out eerie that she also could have corrected our Chinese grammar had we known any to correct.

At our first meeting, she froze me rigid with a patronizing sneer; I got her name wrong. Later, she warmed up with a friendly kid smile when I disgraced myself playing cacophonic harmonica backup to my nephew Jon’s guitar mastery. After that, we were buddies.

Little S., in a fancy school for smart kids, fits a pattern I’ve noticed in trying to make sense of the generational shifts I see in serial snapshots, like time-frame photography, when I come from abroad to teach journalism students and to probe into a foreign society I once knew well.

Lots of young people sparkle with brilliance, self-assured and curious about a world they’ll have to un-fuckup. They are, however, the exception. The United States has come a long way from its raw-boned frontier days when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his hoary tome, Democracy in America.

In 1835, the iconic French sociologist noted “a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom."

Today, he would find many of those weak wanting to suppress the weaker, believing that raises their own level. And that reduces them to preferring inequality in servitude to a wealthy few, which squanders their freedoms and imperils democratic institutions.


Read More

On Sheep, Wolves and Unfriendly Skies

NEW YORK – I think I’ve figured out the American penchant for bombing the crap out of airfields in so many places around the world. It’s just our innate generosity. We want to bring them to the level of La Guardia.

This began as another traveler’s tale of spending 48 woeful hours on what should have been a 90-minute American Airlines hop to the Carolina beaches. But then I stepped back to consider causes and implications. It’s time, as Seth Meyers would say, for a closer look.

Like Abe Lincoln said, you can’t fool all the people all the time. But in a fleeced, flocked-up nation of sheep, you only have to fool enough of the people enough of the time. And as Ben Franklin warned Americans at the outset: “Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you.”

Big business understands this, and so do lawmakers who depend on corporate largesse for their jobs. The Democrats have picked an apt campaign slogan for 2018, harking back to those crucial three words in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: for the people.

First, the basic facts.


Read More

Empty Seas: Two

PARIS - When it comes to fish, you can't keep a good plunderer down. Take the 50,000-ton Lafayette, a floating factory four times the size of the biggest super trawler, able to process a half-million tons a year as it prowled off South America, northern Europe and Africa.

Pacific Andes, a global ocean-emptying empire based in Hong Kong, spent $100 million to refit the old oil tanker in China and launched it under a Russian flag in 2008. It was banned on southern Pacific high seas for cheating on quotas a few years later, so the company bought its way into Peru and kept it within territorial limits.  

In Peru, it was renamed the Damanzaihao and reregistered in Mongolia, which is not picky about enforcing regulations. It switched to Belize, which later withdrew its flag. After legal battles in Peru, among travails elsewhere, Pacific Andes went belly up last year. Its former flagship was sold for a dime on the dollar to Russian owners seeking other waters to plunder.

The Lafayette-Damanzaihao saga reflects how the big players operate. A small-scale vignette shows the other extreme. Paris markets offer vanishing wild Atlantic salmon from the Basque country at up to $60 a pound. Fishermen net them as they swim back inland to spawn.

As fisheries collapse, industrial fleets and small-fry artisans alike work all the harder while there is something left to catch. Rather than enforce strict limits, governments help them with subsidies and legal loopholes.   


Read More

On Clownfish and the Orange Octopus

DRAGUIGNAN, France – My global ocean saga will have to wait. I got sidetracked by TV, watching a blow-dried clownfish interview an orange octopus who seems oblivious to the hammerhead shark circling around, sizing him up as a lunchtime snack.

As Tucker Carlson tossed puffballs at Donald Trump on Fox “News” last week, their exchange on tiny Montenegro shed harsh light on how isolated so many Americans have become from the actual world – and how few seem troubled by the perils of ignorance.

Stick with me; this is about much more than Montenegro. But let's start there.

“They're very aggressive people,” Trump said. Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, in fact, was gently accommodating when Trump aggressively shoved him aside without a word or even a glance to bull forward for a group photo at the Brussels NATO summit last year.


Read More