23 October 2021

North Korea's "First Sister"

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 245-247:

As one of the few people who Kim Jong Un trusts, Kim Yo Jong has come to play a crucial role in her brother’s regime, acting as a kind of chief of staff, protocol officer, and executive assistant all in one. She is his right-hand woman and gatekeeper.

In this way, the siblings are following the example set by their father. Kim Jong Il was very close to his younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui, the one who married Uncle Jang. He adored her, one family member would later say. After he sent his half brother into exile, she was really the only family he had. She played a crucial advisory role to her brother and held important positions within the Workers’ Party right up to her disappearance at the time her husband was executed by Kim Jong Un.

The two women were seen together at Kim Jong Un’s equestrian center at the end of 2012, both of them wearing brown jackets and riding white horses. Kim Kyong Hui appeared to be grooming her niece for the role of First Sister, just as Kim Jong Il had groomed his son.

Kim Yo Jong is several years younger than her brother; exactly how many years is anyone’s guess. The South Korean intelligence service says she was born in 1988; the US government thinks it was 1989. When she joined her older siblings in Bern, registered as Pak Mi Hyang, her birthdate was declared as April 28, 1991. That seems too late and may have been changed to get her into a younger class in Switzerland as she learned a new language.

A photo from this time shows a girl of about eight or nine with a bright smile and chubby cheeks that are a stark contrast to her angled face of today. She is wearing a choker necklace, the kind that was fashionable in the late 1990s, and a red dress. Like her mother, she loved to dance.

She led a cloistered life, growing up in the royal palaces of North Korea. Her father called her “sweet, sweet Yo Jong” and “Princess Yo Jong” and thought she was quick-witted and possessed good leadership skills. Kim Jong Il identified both Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong as having an aptitude for political life.

She had joined her brothers in Switzerland and attended the same public school in Bern. She stayed there until late 2000, having completed the American equivalent of sixth grade. She is thought to have finished her schooling with a private tutor and then to have studied at Kim Il Sung University.

We didn’t see her again until it was time for her brother to take the reins. She appears in the grainy family photo taken under the tree in Wonsan in 2009, and she was at the same Workers’ Party conference in 2010 where her brother emerged as their father’s successor. She stood alongside Kim Jong Il’s fifth “wife,” who worked in the leader’s personal secretariat. This suggested that the First Sister was working in the secretariat too.

Then she was seen at her father’s funeral, a gaunt figure in a black dress, her face down as she walked behind her brother toward their father’s body. But so little was known about her that no one was sure who she was, leading to the speculation that she might be Kim Jong Un’s wife. At that stage, no one knew about First Lady Ri Sol Ju.

From the earliest days of her brother’s leadership, Kim Yo Jong has been there, supporting him.

While the glamorous Ri Sol Ju is at Kim Jong Un’s side to make him appear a more modern leader and convey a sense of aspiration, Kim Yo Jong is working. The first lady may swan about in bright outfits and clutch her husband’s arm, but the First Sister is usually seen in the background, making sure everything goes smoothly.

She could be seen popping out from behind a pillar on a balcony overlooking a huge military ceremony in Pyongyang in 2017, bringing documents to her brother that were apparently related to the spectacle taking place in the square and sky in front of them. At the opening of a flagship residential district in the capital, she was there on the stage, making sure that the photographers were in place and everything was ready before her brother arrived. She’s often checking her phone.

21 October 2021

Origins of North Korea's Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

14 October 2021

North Korea's Masters of Money

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 147-148:

Private property ownership is still technically illegal in North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of a vibrant housing market. Sometimes people lease out the right to live in the apartments assigned to them by the state; at other times, masters of money sell the apartments they’ve been allocated in these new developments for substantial profits.

As a result, real estate prices have soared, with prices in Pyongyang increasing as much as tenfold. A decent two- or three-bedroom apartment in the capital costs up to $80,000, but a luxury three-bedroom apartment in a sought-after complex in central Pyongyang can fetch $180,000. It is an unimaginable sum in a country where the official government salary remains at about $4 a month.

Another reason for the real estate boom is the almost complete lack of a banking system. The masters of money can’t stash their cash in an interest-bearing account or investment fund, so they channel it into bricks and mortar.

Ri Jong Ho’s entrepreneurial good fortune began in the mid-’80s, when he began working for Office 39. By earning money for Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, he was enabling the Dear Leader to buy all that cognac and sushi. That made Ri an important person to the regime, and he lived a good life as a result.

His last job was in the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the border with North Korea, where he was the head of a branch of Taehung, a North Korean trading company involved in shipping, coal and seafood exports, and oil imports. He had previously been president of a ship-trading company and chairman of Korea Kumgang Group, a company that formed a venture with Sam Pa, a [notorious] Chinese businessman, to start a taxi company in Pyongyang. Ri showed me a photo of him and Pa onboard a private jet to Pyongyang.

As head of the Dalian branch of the Taehung export business, Ri would send millions of dollars in profits—denominated in American dollars or Chinese yuan—to Pyongyang. In the first nine months of 2014, until his defection in October that year, Ri said he sent the equivalent of about $10 million to the regime. Despite all the sanctions, the US dollar is still the preferred currency for North Korean businessmen since it is easiest to convert and spend.

It didn’t matter that there were supposedly stringent international sanctions in place. Ri’s underlings simply handed a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from Dalian to the North Korean port of Nampho or gave it to someone to take on the train across the border.

But Uncle Jang’s downfall at the end of 2013 spooked many masters of money, including Ri. He and his family escaped from Dalian to South Korea and then eventually to the United States.

He clearly made a tidy sum of money for himself on the sidelines of his official job. The family lived a comfortable life in the Virginia suburbs. But even in the United States, Ri was cagey about meeting me and careful about what he said. “There are so many other stories, but I can’t tell you all them. Do you understand?”

He gives occasional public speeches about the North Korean regime—and much more private advice to the American government—while his children work on their English and study to go to an American university. They want Ivy League or, failing that, Georgetown.

12 October 2021

North Korea's Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

...

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

11 October 2021

North Korea's Market Economy

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Chinese-style reform and opening—allowing information to flow in at the same time as loosening up on the economic controls—was not an option for Kim. Allowing the population to have access to the truth would mean they would also see that the Great Successor was, in fact, not so great. But small economic “improvements”—North Korea doesn’t call them “reforms” because that implies there’s something wrong with the system—pose relatively little risk.

Instead, he allowed the markets, called “jangmadang,” to blossom.

From the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, there’s at least one bustling marketplace. Across the country, these markets have become the center of daily life. They are overwhelmingly run by women, who, once married, are no longer required to work in state jobs. So while their husbands go off to coal mines without electricity or hospitals without medicine, the women make proper money.

People with permission—or with enough money to buy permission—to travel to China cross the Tumen River and bring back rice cookers, high-heeled shoes, solar panels, deworming tablets, colorful shirts, cell phone cases, and screwdrivers. Sometimes they bring literal kitchen sinks. About 80 percent of the products in North Korea’s markets are made in China.

Those who can’t travel set up shop as hairdressers or bike repairers, open restaurants, or sell homemade sweets. Some entrepreneurial types make money by renting out their cell phones for calls to South Korea or their apartments to couples wanting some privacy.

These markets have become the biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced. People across the country have seen their living standards improve—just as Kim Jong Un promised. Maybe things didn’t improve as much as many citizens, such as Mr. Hong, wanted, but they’re still heading in a positive direction. There is now a middle class in North Korea.

There are now more than four hundred government-approved markets in North Korea, double the number that existed when Kim Jong Un took over the country. The city of Chongjin alone has about twenty. The markets in Sinuiju and the “smugglers’ village” of Hyesan, both close to the border with China, as well as those in the port city of Haeju, have all grown rapidly and visibly in recent years. Satellite images show new markets popping up all over North Korea and old markets moving into bigger, newer buildings.

With an average of fifteen hundred stalls in a market, there is stiff competition to secure a prime spot. A good stall in a prominent place in Hyesan was going for about $700 in 2015—an astronomical sum in North Korea. But there is so much demand for stalls that even these expensive slots are being snapped up as soon as they become available.

At every turn, there is someone seeking to make money from the markets. The security services extract bribes from those seeking to cross the river into China. The supposedly communist authorities have embraced the decidedly capitalist concept of tax. People running stalls in the markets must now pay 10 percent of the value of their sales to the market management office. South Korean researchers estimate that the authorities rake in about $15 million a day in stall rental fees from merchants, while other estimates suggest the state can earn almost a quarter of a million dollars in a single day by levying taxes on stall owners.

Each market is run by a manager, someone who is almost always a man and who is well connected with local bureaucrats. This is a powerful role that comes with the opportunity to make a lot of money—and, of course, an obligation to pay kickbacks to higher-ups who put them in the job.

As the state economy has failed, with industry grinding to a halt thanks to a lack of electricity or raw goods, the markets have become the lifeblood of North Korea.

08 October 2021

The Great Successor's Titles

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 87-88:

Kim Jong Il had declared a three-year mourning period after the death of his father, during which time he consolidated his grip on the regime and tried to hang on through the famine.

But the Great Successor didn’t have any downtime. The man now known as the “Beloved and Respected” Comrade Kim Jong Un got busy “turning sorrow into strength,” as newsreader Ri put it. From that moment on, he devoted all his time and energy to staying in power. For that, he needed to establish his own power base, one that owed its loyalty directly to him, not to his father.

It was easy to make fun of the new young leader, and he would soon become the butt of many a joke in the outside world. For starters, there was his cartoonish appearance, with his idiosyncratic fade haircut, his rapidly expanding girth, and his penchant for attire that is fashionable only in Communist holdover states.

...

Kim Jong Un gave himself a vast array of elongated titles—he had soon collected hundreds of appellations of varying degrees of obsequiousness. Some were standard Communist fare like First Secretary of the Workers’ Party. (He posthumously made his father General Secretary for eternity.) Others were standard but even more obviously undeserved, like chairman of the party’s central military commission and first chairman of the National Defense Commission.

But some were pure hyperbole, like Invincible and Triumphant General. He was the Guardian of Justice, the Best Incarnation of Love, the Decisive and Magnanimous Leader. And there were many with suns: the Guiding Ray of Sun, the Sun of the Revolution, the Sun of Socialism, the Bright Sun of the Twenty-First Century, and the Sun of Mankind. There was no honorific too superlative for the new leader.

07 October 2021

Revealing the Successor to Kim Jong Il

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 63-64:

BACK HOME, KIM JONG UN PREPARED TO JOIN HIS OLDER brother at Kim Il Sung Military University, North Korea’s equivalent of West Point. It was their mother’s idea to send them to the military academy, a way to bolster her sons’ claims to succession.

His mother’s ambitions were evident. One of the few photos of them together shows her leaning over the boy she called the Morning Star King as he colored. He is about six years old and dressed in a general’s uniform with four stars on his shoulders.

Kim Jong Un had entered the university named after his grandfather in 2002 and began studying juche-oriented military leadership, the idea that North Korea could act alone to defend itself. It was an important ideological lesson even if it had no basis in reality. North Korea was entirely dependent on China for its stability.

That year was pivotal both for the heir apparent and for the regime.

First, it marked a new chapter for relations between North Korea and the United States—for the worse. At the start of 2002, President George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil.” Bush declared that, together with Iran and Iraq, North Korea was “arming to threaten the peace of the world.… All nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.”

Just a couple of weeks after that speech, Kim Jong Il officially turned sixty. His birthday was always celebrated with great fanfare in North Korea, but this one was even more important than usual. In Korean culture, a man’s sixtieth is a major milestone. It marks the completion of one sixty-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac observed in many Asian countries.

In the meantime, Kim Jong Il’s one-time consort, and the mother of Kim Jong Nam, died in Moscow that year. Between that and his milestone birthday, Kim Jong Il’s mortality was clearly on his mind. There were signs of nascent preparation for succession.

For starters, there was a new “mother of the nation,” a name previously reserved for Kim Jong Il’s mother, in the propaganda. The Korean People’s Army issued a sixteen-page pamphlet that year called “Our Respected Mother Who Is Loyal to Our Beloved Supreme Commander Is the Most Loyal among Loyalists.” Songs about “Our Respected Mother” soon began to echo across the North Korean airwaves.

These did not explicitly name Ko Yong Hui, but the cadres could read between the lines and see it was her. She elevated to become the next mother of the nation, an early indication that one of her sons was next in line for the leadership.

So efforts to crown one of her sons were well underway even before Kim Jong Nam’s ill-fated trip to Tokyo Disney, although Ko took advantage of his embarrassing gaffe to push her sons’ case.

Ko Yong Hui knew that she did not have long to lobby for her sons. She was losing her fight against breast cancer.

Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, was throwing himself into his studies at the academy, according to official North Korean accounts. The young man was such a natural at military strategy that he was instructing the instructors rather than learning from them, the state media reported.

06 October 2021

Kim Jong Un's Tiger Mom

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 50-52:

The apartment on Kirchstrasse was more modest than what he was used to back home, but Kim Jong Un could live a relatively normal existence there. And he could devote himself to his favorite pastime: basketball. It was his mother who first sparked his interest in the sport. There’s an old tale that Korean mothers, North and South, like to tell their children: if you play basketball, you’ll grow taller.

Kim Jong Un was short as a child, and his father was not a tall man—he was only five foot three, and famously wore platform shoes to try to compensate—so Ko Yong Hui encouraged her son to play basketball in the hope the tale was true. He grew to be five foot seven, so maybe it worked a bit.

She was thrilled to see her son taking to basketball, a sport that she believed would help him clear his mind and loosen his childhood obsession with planes and engines. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s mother and aunt soon saw that basketball had become an addiction too—the boy was sleeping with his basketball in his bed—and one that came at the expense of his studies. His mother would visit Bern regularly to scold her son for playing too much and studying too little.

She arrived on a passport that declared her to be Chong Il Son, assigned to the North Korean mission at the United Nations in Geneva since 1987, but the Swiss knew exactly who she was. After all, she arrived in the country in a Russian-made Ilyushin 62 jet bearing the insignia of Air Koryo, the North Korean state airline. The plane, which bore the tail number P882, was for VIPs only. It even had a full bedroom onboard.

All sorts of bags and merchandise would be loaded on and off the plane, watched carefully by Swiss intelligence. They monitored Ko Yong Hui closely, keeping records of everything from her shopping expeditions on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive shopping avenues, to her hospital bills at fancy private clinics on Lake Geneva.

They also knew who her children were. They called Kim Jong Chol “the tall, skinny one” and Kim Jong Un “the short, fat one.” But the new Swiss attorney general, Carla Del Ponte (who would later become chief prosecutor in the international criminal tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda), had forbidden the Swiss authorities to monitor the children. In famously discreet Switzerland, they were allowed to just be children—even if they were the children of one of the world’s most notorious tyrants.

When Kim’s mother arrived in Bern, she would bring handwritten notebooks containing one thousand Chinese characters, which form the basis of most Korean words, that she had made and photocopied so the children could keep up with their language skills. She told her sons that they had to memorize five or six pages a day, the kind of homework that torments Korean children the world over.

She was what we today would call a tiger mother, pouring a lot of energy into her children’s education and going through their journals and homework no matter how late she returned to the apartment at night.

But Kim Jong Un had other priorities.

05 October 2021

Building the Transition to Kim Jong Il

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 24-25:

In 1983, Kim Jong Il made his first known foreign trip without his father, a visit to factories in emerging China. The visit, one of a handful the Dear Leader made over the years, was part of Beijing’s efforts to encourage North Korea to embark on a journey of economic transformation without democratizing, just as China had done.

“Through tireless revolutionary activities spanning over 30 years, he ushered in a new era of prosperity,” according to an official North Korean history of Kim Jong Il’s life that was published soon after he became leader.

But the reticent Kim Jong Il could hardly have been more different from his gregarious father. Kim Il Sung was lionized as a fearless guerilla fighter who led the charge against the imperialist Japanese. Kim Jong Il had next to no military experience. He was a film lover, a heavy-drinking playboy with a bouffant hairdo whose main contribution to the state was the movies he directed.

Still, in 1991, he was pronounced Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. It was hardly an auspicious time to cement the succession. The Berlin Wall had come down. Just two days after his promotion, the Soviet Union collapsed. The Communist Bloc that had supported the North Korean regime, both economically and ideologically, was no more.

To bolster the case for hereditary succession in these challenging circumstances, the regime created a fantastical story about Kim Jong Il’s provenance that borrowed heavily from both Korean mythology and Christianity. He would be leader not simply because he had been appointed by his father but because he had some divine right.

His birthplace became not a guerrilla camp in Khabarovsk but Mount Paektu, the volcano on North Korea’s border with China that has legendary status in Korean culture. It is said to be the birthplace of Tangun, the mythical half-bear, half-deity father of the Korean people. The creature conferred a heavenly origin on the Korean people, and, thanks to this story, Kim Jong Il appeared to come from heaven too.

North Korea’s propagandists didn’t stop there. They said that Kim Jong Il was born in a wooden cabin and that a single bright star shone in the sky at his birth. They stopped short of making the building a manger or his mother a virgin. But, for good measure, they added a double rainbow spontaneously appearing over the mountain. The myth of the holy Paektu bloodline was created.

Kim Jong Il had been busy perpetuating that Paektu bloodline over the previous two decades. He had racked up quite a cast of wives and consorts—and children.

01 October 2021

What Aid to Afghanistan Bought

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 271-274:

Not long after, I returned to Afghanistan. President Obama’s plan to withdraw US troops was well under way, with bases closing and equipment being destroyed. Could the war’s true winners be found in what we were leaving behind? I traveled through Uruzgan, and on the KandaharTirin Kot highway I could see Matiullah’s men everywhere, as they had been during my last visit. But the road north of Tirin Kot, heading into Ghilzai country, was now dotted here and there with new militia outposts not adorned with Matiullah’s photo or the Afghan flag. I stopped at one, a small wooden trellis with a canopy of leaves as cover, and met the fighters. They were under the control of a local strongman, who was being paid by a private company to protect a road construction project. Every mile or so I came upon another such militia, each run by a different strongman.

Later, I arrived at the home of Daud Khan, a leader of the local Barakzai tribe and one of the key militia commanders in the province, perhaps second only to Matiullah himself. He was heavily invested in protecting road construction crews against Taliban attacks, and the impending US withdrawal was hurting his business prospects. “We need money,” he told me. “We need money because life is hard out here. We’ve got a lot of expenses—I need weapons, RPGs, trucks, we want body armor. I keep asking the Americans for body armor but they won’t give it to me. They expect us to fight with nothing.”

I asked him if he had gotten into firefights with the Taliban recently. He clasped his hands together and laughed. “The Taliban? My mother can fight the Taliban. They just put bombs in the ground. They won’t be a problem after the Americans leave.”

Then why the need for all the weapons?

“Matiullah,” he said. “He’s worse than the Taliban. After the Americans leave, we’ll need to protect ourselves.” Tirin Kot was now caught in a cold war between Daud Khan’s and Matiullah’s forces. By my count there were more than thirty pro-American armed groups operating in central Uruzgan alone, some aligned with Matiullah, some against.

Later that afternoon I visited Daud’s uncle, a militia commander named Shah Muhammad. We sat in a field overlooking his poppy plantation, surrounded by nearly a dozen fighters. “There’s something I want to tell you,” he said, looking at me keenly. “There’s only one force that can save Afghanistan. The Americans. And I want you to know how much I despise the Taliban. Even if my father was a Talib, I’d kill him.” He shifted to sit next to me, nearly whispering in my ear. “I’m in trouble. You’re an American. I need your help. I want to fight the Taliban, I just need contracts. If the Americans give me some contracts, I can bring security. I can turn this war around. I just need money.” He begged me to pass on the message to politicians in Washington.

Such jockeying for patronage was nothing new. From its earliest days, the Karzai government was tethered to American aid, incapable of surviving on its own. It was reminiscent of the Communist regime of the 1980s, which lived and died by Moscow’s patronage—except that now there was a twist. Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad [Khan]. In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state.

These were no conditions for nation building. Instead, as journalist Matthieu Aikins has pointed out, a weak Karzai administration found itself competing with strongmen of the countryside for funds. With warlords like JMK developing their own business and patronage relationships with the United States, the tottering government in Kabul had no choice but to enter the game itself. As a result, the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank. So corrupt, in fact, that nearly every metric that US or Afghan officials pressed into service to show progress unravels upon inspection. “Under Taliban rule, only 1.2 million students were enrolled in schools, with less than 50,000 of them girls,” a US forces press release stated in 2011. “Today, under the government of Afghanistan, there are 8.2 million students, of which nearly 40 percent—or 3.2 million—are girls.” But these were largely phantom figures. In the central province of Ghor, for instance, independent investigators discovered that of the 740 schools listed by the education ministry, 80 percent were “not operating at all.” Nonetheless, over four thousand teachers were on the government payroll. The vast majority of them, investigators found, simply collected paychecks and stayed at home, giving a cut to local officials, who in turn funneled a portion to warlords as a way to purchase influence. The story was similar around the country. Traveling through Wardak Province, I came upon one long-abandoned school after another that was still included on the much-touted government tally.

30 September 2021

Wardak No-Man's-Land, 2009

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 235-236:

The summer of 2009 saw an increase in infighting among Wardak’s Taliban, and growing tensions with their co-insurgent allies in Hekmatyar’s faction. At the same time, because the Taliban leadership paid units a “bonus” for outstanding attacks, the number of fake assaults, staged for video, surged. Akbar Gul played the game as well as anyone, but as the days went on he slid into despair. He hated those men in Quetta, he hated the ISI, and, most of all, he hated Ghulam Ali and his success. But he kept it all to himself. It was a dangerous new world, and you couldn’t trust anyone, even your own allies.

Countrywide, his movement was losing steam. The Taliban were now responsible for more civilian deaths than were the Americans. In some communities, roadside bombs, assassinations, and summary executions had come to take their place alongside Guantanamo and the door-kicking night raids of US troops in the pantheon of fears that kept villagers awake at night. Meanwhile, the insurgency was spreading from marginalized, cut-off communities into those that had fared better in the post-2001 years, whether it was welcome there or not.

In Chak, many of the commanders Akbar Gul knew had been killed in night raids, leaving Ghulam Ali’s crew and a smattering of independents, most younger than he, with no memories of the old Taliban days. It became increasingly difficult to defend their actions—which included, in one case, beheading a schoolteacher—to the village elders. He turned inward, planning operations on his own, without other commanders, and keeping away from Pakistan. Then, one day, he received a surprising phone call. It was the government’s new chief of police for Chak, an old war buddy from his Hizb-i-Islami days. They had ended up on opposite sides through chance more than anything else. The man spoke of a government program that invited fighters to switch sides in return for money and a guaranteed job. Akbar Gul listened and wondered where such a program had been years earlier, when he would have given anything for a normal life. But things were different now, more complicated. He realized that it had been a long while since the Taliban meant anything to him. But he couldn’t imagine himself openly joining forces with the government either. In fact, he knew that friends who’d gone down that route were languishing in a dangerous political no-man’s-land: Karzai’s government had not fulfilled its promises, and for the Taliban they were now marked men.

“What are you fighting for? The Americans are going to leave anyway,” the police chief said. “We are building Afghanistan.” The Taliban, he added, were terrorists, enemies of the country, stooges of Pakistan.

Akbar Gul was unmoved. “There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead,” he replied, reiterating one of his favorite Pashtun proverbs. This war had left no group, Afghan or foreign, with clean hands. You had to be careful to survive. Today, the government said the Taliban were terrorists—but what about tomorrow? Would the Taliban be venerated, as the mujahedeen were now venerated? Would the Americans change their allegiances, as it seemed they had done after the 1980s, and brand the Karzai government as their enemy? It was too much for Akbar Gul to grapple with just then. He knew only that to trust the categories put forth by the Americans or the government was to go down the road to ruin.

He told the police chief that he wasn’t interested. He said he was satisfied with his life as it was, thanked him for his call, and hung up.

The next morning, with new presidential elections looming, with American patrols crawling here and there, with Taliban groups erecting their usual checkpoints to hunt for spies and possible kidnap targets, he hopped on his motorcycle, headed for the low hills behind the village, and began another day of [resistance] work.

29 September 2021

Using U.S. Troops to Settle Afghan Feuds

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 130-131:

As winter settled across Uruzgan and people marked the first full year since the Taliban’s downfall, tit-for-tat killings and feuds over access to the Americans continued. But a new political order was slowly, undeniably crystallizing, unwittingly enforced by American forces.

Away from the Pashtun south, the story was different. In the northern province of Balkh, for example, two warlords—Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta—jockeyed for control, leading to multiple small-scale skirmishes. The possibility of open warfare seemed all too real, but things never came to a head. Instead, United Nations negotiators were able to preserve the peace, as Atta accepted a governorship and Dostum a post in Kabul. I asked Eckart Schiewek, then a political advisor with the UN mission to Afghanistan, why the outcome was so different, why the southern pattern of killings had never taken hold. “There were no American troops,” he replied, pointing out that almost the entire US military presence was concentrated in the Pashtun south and east near the Pakistani border. “You couldn’t call on soldiers to settle your feuds.”

Anthropologist Noah Coburn found a similar dynamic in his study of Istaliff, a district near Kabul similar in size to Khas Uruzgan but with no regular US troop presence. “International military forces,” he wrote, had “little interest in involving themselves in local politics” in Istaliff. Because none of the various Afghan factions competing for power enjoyed privileged access to foreign troops, no group could outmuscle the other, and no one “seriously considered trying to establish hegemonic control over town politics.” The result was a tenuous, fragile stability—but stability nonetheless. No communities were severed from state access, nor were there cycles of bloody revenge. And, to this day in Istaliff, there is no anti-American insurgency.

In southern Afghanistan, the mix of American boots on the ground and strongmen itching to outflank their rivals prevented such détentes. Day by day, marginalized southern communities from one valley to the next were slipping out of the government’s orbit. The Americans were beginning to wear out their welcome—and it was only going to get worse.

28 September 2021

Flexible Loyalties in Afghanistan

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 104-105:

Within a month of its military collapse, the Taliban movement had ceased to exist. When religious clerics in Pakistan launched a fund-raising campaign to get the Taliban back on their feet and waging “jihad” against the Americans, it was roundly rejected by the Talib leadership. “We want to tell people the Taliban system is no more,” Agha Jan Mutassim, finance minister of the fallen regime and Mullah Omar’s confidant, told reporters. “They should not give any donations in the name of the Taliban.” He added: “If a stable Islamic government is established in Afghanistan, we don’t intend to launch any action against it.”

Khalid Pashtoon, spokesman for the new Kandahar government, declared: “Ministers of the Taliban and senior Taliban are coming one by one and surrendering and joining with us.” The list included the Taliban ministers of defense, justice, interior, vice and virtue, information, health, commerce, industry, and finance—in effect, the entire Taliban cabinet; key military commanders and important governors; diplomats; and top officials who had worked with Mullah Omar. The avalanche of surrenders knew no bounds of ideology: leaders of the notorious whip-wielding religious police were among the earliest to defect. A group of former Taliban officials even announced that they were forming a political party to participate in future democratic elections. “We are giving advice to Hamid Karzai,” said their leader. “We support him.”

By surrendering, the Taliban were following the pattern that had marked Afghan politics for much of the previous two decades. After the Soviet withdrawal, many Afghan Communists had rebranded themselves as Islamists and joined the mujahedeen. During the civil war, factions shifted loyalties based on nothing more than bald pragmatism. Upon the Taliban’s entry onto the scene, warlords across the Pashtun belt had either retired, fled, or joined them. Now it was the Taliban’s turn, and as one member of the movement after another submitted to the authority of the Karzai administration, there emerged the possibility of a truly inclusive political order.

25 September 2021

Early Origins of the Taliban in Kandahar

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 79-80:

Most writing on the Taliban assumes that they originated in extremist Pakistani madrassas in the 1980s. In fact, the group’s origins lie much deeper in the Afghan past. Visiting Paktika in 2010, I came upon a small hilltop village where locals had gathered around a silent, downcast man. Nearby, a young herder paced back and forth, watching him intently, and, off to a side, tribal graybeards stood conferring. One of them approached, pushing his way through the scrum, and announced a verdict: for killing Rahim Gul’s cow, Moheb Jan was to pay him two sheep and twenty days’ worth of labor. Afterward, I sat down with the elder, who explained that each transgression in his community carried a fixed fine. Break someone’s nose in a fight, and you gave him a chicken. Break a bone, and you surrendered a sheep or goat. Murder, depending on the circumstances, could cost you a piece of land, your house, or even one of your women, who would go to the victim’s family in marriage.

This was how the hillspeople had learned to live with each other in a world without a state or police or judicial system. Each tribe had its own set of intricate rules, decided by elders elected by the clan’s entire male population. The elders derived their status from experience and the respect traditionally accorded to the aged. No man, however, outranked another in rights, and it was rare for one family to possess significantly more than any other. For men, at least, a deep egalitarian ethos ran through the tribal system.

For a long time, most of the Pashtun belt had functioned this way. Eventually, however, when some tribes moved down from the mountains into agricultural settlements, certain enterprising individuals developed ties with distant state authorities, and soon hierarchies sprang up. In eighteenth-century Kandahar, for example, the Safavid Empire of Persia had established suzerainty, incorporating tribal figures of their liking into their military or using them as intermediaries in dealing with the native population. The egalitarian system of the mountains slowly gave way to one dominated by tribal strongmen, and decisions were increasingly made not through traditional tribal law but on the whims and biases of a small clique of notables. It was not long before Kandahari tribes were the most thoroughly hierarchical in the country.

As a consequence, a different form of justice grew in popularity as an alternative to the tribal system: religious law, or sharia. Like tribal law, religious law expressed itself in a detailed set of punishments and restitutions for particular crimes. Its main practitioners were mullahs, who led Friday sermons and could adjudicate disputes. To become a mullah, you studied for up to twelve years in a madrassa, where you learned the intricacies of Islamic law, along with history, philosophy, and logic. In Pashto, such students were called taliban. Because a mullah was guaranteed employment for life, this was a course of study particularly well suited to those from the humblest backgrounds. It was in greater Kandahar, where tribal structures were the weakest, that the taliban were most fully integrated into social life.

22 September 2021

Afghanistan Civil War, 1992-1996

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 63-65:

All around him, families were crumbling. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it—it didn’t matter what you thought, whether you supported the mujahedeen or the Communists. The only households surviving unscathed, he knew, were the neighborhood’s few Uzbek families, members of the same ethnic group as Gelam Jam.

He wasn’t interested in this war, but the war seemed interested in him. There were no more innocents, no more neutrals, only sides already chosen for him. The choice was clear: pick a side, or end up like his brothers. It would have been unthinkable before the war, but now he felt he could trust only his fellow Pashtuns. They had borne the brunt of Gelam Jam in his neighborhood, it seemed. At first, they had hidden their ethnicity, speaking only Farsi in public, but soon they were getting plucked from their vehicles to have their pronunciation checked—and if their speech sounded Pashtun, they were often killed on the spot. This was a war against people who spoke like him, who looked like him, and if that’s what the enemy had decided, then he’d play by their rules. So one morning he went to a camp of Hizb-i-Islami, a Pashtun-heavy militia, and sought out an acquaintance. “I want to do jihad,” he announced. The man broke into a broad smile. “Welcome,” he said.

* * *

Thousands of young men, many of them now orphans and widowers, flocked to the various factions feuding for power in the civil war. There were no heroes; each group proved as responsible for the bloodshed as the next. Broadly, the factions were organized along ethnic lines—not so much due to ethnic nationalism but because in the face of perpetual instability, with a weak or absent state, you allied with those you knew and trusted. In fact, it was often unclear what ideological differences, if any, divided the men fighting each other on Kabul’s streets. Still, the struggle for power and survival was imbued with meaning: more than simply a battle of wills, for many the war was “jihad.”

The West responded to the civil war by simply ignoring it, and after the 2001 invasion the years from 1992 to 1996 were all but stricken from the standard narrative. It was dangerous history, the truths buried within it too uncomfortable and messy. If the mujahedeen had been no better than the Taliban or al-Qaeda, any attempt to bring the principal actors of that period to account could only lead to the highest echelons of Hamid Karzai’s government, and, by extension, to American policy over the previous thirty years.

Yet it isn’t difficult to uncover this history, for every Kabuli has a story to tell. Deadly roadblocks, disappeared neighbors, and decaying bodies were woven into the fabric of daily life, like going shopping or saying your prayers. Every day brought fresh destruction; any date picked out of the calendar is the anniversary of some grisly toll.

21 September 2021

Afghanistan's Year Zero: 1979

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 52-53:

As with Mullah Cable and Jan Muhammad, I was interested in Heela’s experience in the new American-backed order. But to start her story with the US invasion would be like “watching a movie from the middle,” as she put it. In truth, Afghanistan’s real Year Zero was 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion, and nothing—not the Taliban, or the American invasion, or the trajectory of Heela’s life—makes much sense without first coming to terms with the Russian occupation and its aftermath.

In the veritable Afghan prehistory of peace and anonymity, the era before the Soviets, there lies a world lost and yet to be recovered. In 1972, the year that Heela was born to a family of journalists and professionals, Kabul was a quaint, relaxed mountain town. An important stop on the “hippie trail”—a well-trodden route for Western stoners and flower children often heading to India—the town had reinvented itself in a few short generations. A wave of progressive reforms had rippled through Afghanistan in the 1950s, resulting in a government decree that veiling was optional for women. In 1964, they were granted the franchise. Photographs from the era show besuited men accompanied by women in short skirts and beehive hairdos; there are movie theaters, broad paved roads, and tree-lined sidewalks.

Out in the heavily tribal Pashtun countryside, however, conservatism still reigned and women lived cloistered in their homes. The state was largely absent, and civil society nonexistent; politics worked through kinship and patronage, leaving clan leaders and landlords to run their own fiefdoms. If you managed to make it out to Kabul and attend university, you came away with a tantalizing taste of what your country could become, and a stark, unremitting sense of the inadequacies of the world you’d left behind. As with so many other developing nations of that era, this disjuncture spawned a crisis of modernity, and the disillusioned urban intelligentsia struggled to articulate a response. Two rival currents emerged: one embracing Communism, which looked to the Soviet Union and third-world liberation movements, and the other, Islamism, which took inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood and related trends in the Arab world.

For many years these were merely undercurrents, but they rushed to the surface in the late 1970s.

16 September 2021

Negative Human Development in Resource States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 211-212:

In 1970, the year the Olympic movement expelled South Africa, the government passed legislation formally stripping blacks of their citizenship and restricting them to destitute “homelands,” and the authorities appointed a barbaric new commanding officer at Robben Island prison to watch over Mandela and his fellow inmates, South Africa produced some 62 percent of the gold mined worldwide. From the early 1970s to 1993 gold, diamonds, and other minerals accounted for between half and two-thirds of South Africa’s exports annually.

South Africa’s gold and diamonds provided the financial means for apartheid to exist. In that sense white rule was an extreme manifestation of the resource state: the harnessing of a national endowment of mineral wealth to ensure the power and prosperity of the few while the rest are cast into penury and impotence. None of Africa’s resource states today come close to the level of orchestrated subjugation of the majority that the apartheid regime achieved. Neither do they employ apartheid’s racial creed, even if ethnicity has combined poisonously with the struggle to capture resource rent in Nigeria, Angola, Guinea, and elsewhere. But as their rulers, in concert with the multinational corporations of the resource industry, horde the fruits of their nations’ oil and minerals, Africa’s resource states have come to bear a troubling resemblance to the divisions of apartheid.

While the children of eastern Congo, northern Nigeria, Guinea, and Niger waste away, the beneficiaries of the looting machine grow fat. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning Indian economist who has examined with great insight why mass starvation occurs, writes, “The sense of distance between the ruler and the ruled—between ‘us’ and ‘them’—is a crucial feature of famines.” That same reasoning could be applied to the provision of other basic needs, including clean water and schooling. And rarely is the distance Sen describes as wide as in Africa’s resource states.

Many of Africa’s resource states experienced very high rates of economic growth during the commodity boom of the past decade. The usual measure of average incomes—GDP per head—has risen. But on closer examination such is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling class that that growth has predominantly benefited those who were already rich and powerful, rendering the increase in GDP per head misleading. A more revealing picture comes from a different calculation. Each year the United Nations ranks all the countries for which it can gather sufficient data (186 in 2012) by their level of human development, things like rates of infant mortality and years of schooling. It also ranks them by GDP per head. If you subtract a country’s rank on the human development index from its rank on the GDP per head index, you get an indication of the extent to which economic growth is actually bettering the lot of the average person in that country. In countries that score zero—as Congo, Rwanda, Russia, and Portugal did in 2012—living standards are roughly where you might expect them to be, given that country’s GDP per head. People in countries with positive scores enjoy disproportionately pleasant living conditions relative to income—Cuba, Georgia, and Samoa top the table with scores of 44, 37, and 28, respectively. A negative score indicates a failure to turn national income into longer lives, better health, and more years of education for the population at large. Of the ten countries that come out worst, five are African resource states: Angola (–35), Gabon (–40), South Africa (–42), Botswana (–55), and Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea’s score (–97), comfortably the worst in the world, is all the more remarkable because its GDP per head is close to $30,000 a year, not far below the level of Spain or New Zealand and seventy times that of Congo.

14 September 2021

"Survival of the Fattest" in Rentier States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 188-190:

A governor of one of Nigeria’s thirty-six states is effectively president of his own fiefdom. He has immunity from prosecution and controls the state security budget. The chairman of each of the 774 local governments is answerable to the state governor. To win a presidential primary a candidate needs two-thirds of the states to back him. That backing is in the gift of the governors. The Governors’ Forum is perhaps the most potent gathering in the land. Only about half of Nigeria’s oil revenues are allocated to the federal government. A fifth goes to the local governments. The governors control the quarter of oil revenues that goes to the states.

Oil-producing states receive an additional 13 percent share of Nigeria’s oil income before it is divided between the tiers of government. The state houses of the Niger Delta are powerful pistons of the looting machine. When he agreed to meet me in late 2010, Timipre Sylva had succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as governor of Bayelsa, one of the Delta’s three main states. I had hoped to interview him at Gloryland, the gubernatorial palace set well apart from the shacks that house his constituents. Instead, I was summoned to the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel in Lagos, where Sylva was staying with his entourage during a visit to the commercial capital.

A tall and intelligent man, Sylva was under pressure. Politics in the Niger Delta is unremittingly volatile. Gunmen drift between the militias of MEND, crime gangs, and squads of political thugs that freelance for competing aspirants to power. As Sylva’s rivals sought to force him from office, loyalists were exchanging tit-for-tat attacks with his enemies. Relations with Jonathan, recently elevated to the presidential palace by Yar’Adua’s death, had soured. Little wonder, I suggested, that others coveted his job: his immediate predecessor had found himself president and the one before had siphoned off so much cash that he, like Joshua Dariye and James Ibori, the former governors of Plateau and Delta States, had snapped up enough assets abroad to earn the attention of the British police.

Sylva accepted that there had been widespread corruption among the governors. But he was, he pleaded, just a cog in a patronage system not of his making. “If a chief walks into my office, he expects me to take care of his problems because that is what the military used to do,” Sylva said. “That’s what he’s used to. If I don’t, I’ve got a very big political enemy.”

So you have to “settle” them, I suggested, using the Nigerian term for the dispensing of cash.

“Yes. And you will read that as corruption. But me, I probably will read that as political survival, because I have to survive before I become incorruptible.”

“And you use public funds to do that?” I asked.

“What does he expect me to do? I don’t have that kind of money; the kind of money he’s expecting. Even if I have it privately, I won’t do that with it. And he’s coming to me because I’m governor. If, for example, the big chief comes, and he has to go for a medical check, it shouldn’t be my problem. But it is. If a very big traditional ruler dies somewhere, and they want to do an elaborate burial ceremony, they come to me. I have to do it.”

Me, I probably will read that as political survival. To justify corruption, Sylva reached for the same word—“survival”—that Mahmoud Thiam had chosen when he explained why pariah states are willing to deal with the likes of Sam Pa and the Queensway Group. Said Djinnit, the UN’s man in west Africa, called the competition to control political power in the resource states “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Paul Collier talks about the law of “the survival of the fattest” in rentier states.

13 September 2021

How Multinationals Dodge Taxes

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 165-167:

Two-thirds of trade happens within multinational corporations. To a large extent those companies decide where to pay taxes on which portions of their earnings. That leaves ample scope to avoid paying taxes anywhere or to pay taxes at a rate far below what purely domestic companies pay.

Imagine a multinational company making rubber chickens, called Fowl Play Incorporated. Fowl Play’s headquarters and most of its customers are in the United States. A subsidiary, Fowl Play Cameroon, runs a rubber plantation in Cameroon. The rubber is shipped to a factory in China, owned by another subsidiary, Fowl Play China, where it is made into rubber chickens and packaged. The rubber chickens are shipped to Fowl Play’s parent company in the United States, which sells them to mainly US customers.

Fowl Play could simply pay taxes in each location based on an honest assessment of the proportion of its income that accrues there. But it has a duty to its shareholders to maximize returns, and its executives want the bonuses that come from turning big profits, so its accountants are instructed to minimize the effective tax rate Fowl Play pays by booking more revenues in places with low tax rates and fewer revenues in places with high tax rates. If, for example, Fowl Play wanted to reduce its tax liability in Cameroon and the United States by shifting profits to China, where it has been granted a tax holiday to build its factory, it would undervalue the price at which the rubber is sold from the Cameroonian subsidiary to the Chinese one, then overvalue the price at which the Chinese subsidiary sells the finished rubber chickens to the parent company in the United States. All this happens within one company and bears scant relation to the actual costs involved. The result is that the group’s overall effective tax rate is much lower than it would have been had it apportioned profits fairly. Many such tax maneuvers are perfectly legal. When it is done ethically “transfer pricing,” as the technique in this example is known, uses the same prices when selling goods and services within one company as when selling between companies at market rates. But the ruses to fiddle transfer pricing are legion. A mining company might tweak the value of machinery it ships in from abroad, or an oil company might charge a subsidiary a fortune to use the parent’s corporate logo.

Suppose Fowl Play gets even cannier. It creates another subsidiary, this time in the British Virgin Islands, one of the tax havens where the rate of corporation tax is zero. Fowl Play BVI extends a loan to the Cameroonian subsidiary at an astronomical interest rate. The Cameroonian subsidiary’s profits are canceled out by the interest payments on the loan, which accrue, untaxed, to Fowl Play BVI. And all the while Fowl Play and the rubber chicken industry’s lobbyists can loudly warn Cameroon, China, and the United States that, should they try to raise taxes or clamp down on fiddling, the company could move its business, and the attendant jobs, elsewhere. (The BVI company is only a piece of paper and doesn’t employ anyone, but then there is no need to threaten the British Virgin Islands—its tax rate could not be lower.)

10 September 2021

New African Infrastructure for Whom?

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 147-149:

It is too simplistic to see China’s quest for African resources as a Manichean struggle for nature’s treasure between East and West. There is competition, but there is also cooperation in the business of resource extraction. And for all its increased attractiveness to rival investors from overseas, much of Africa remains locked at the foot of the global economy.

Ibrahim Iddi Ango, the industrialist who headed Niger’s chamber of commerce, told me that Niger’s rulers had sold the country short in their negotiations with the Chinese. “They need strategic resources. You must say, ‘You are interested in that? These are the conditions. First, you must use local labor. Second, all the needs you have—for example, the transit—you must use at a minimum 50 percent local operators.’ But when they came the government said none of this. The state took a percentage of the businesses and let the Chinese do what they want.” A brief window of opportunity to use China’s desire for African minerals to insist on securing for Niger the skills and infrastructure that might help to salve the resource curse by broadening the economy was closing. “To diversify, it’s central,” Iddi Ango said—and with good reason. Niger is among the African states most acutely dependent on a handful of raw commodity exports, their economic fortunes yoked to the whims of far-off consumers. On the African Development Bank’s index, where a higher score indicates a more diversified economy, relatively wealthy countries not shackled to the resource trade such as Mauritius and Morocco score 22 and 41, respectively. The average for the whole of Africa, including more prosperous North Africa, is 4.8. The most oil-dependent states, Angola and Chad, record the lowest scores, 1.1. Niger does only marginally better, with a score of 2.4.

“But if you let China do what it wants—as many African countries have—they pay for the oil or the resources and use Chinese labor, Chinese trucks. It’s a big problem,” Iddi Ango said. “They are coming because the resources are here. This moment will not be repeated. We can’t miss it. When the uranium or the oil is finished, they will leave.”

The fall of Tandja demonstrated the limits of China’s readiness to get involved in domestic politics to protect African allies. But Xia Huang, the Chinese ambassador in Niamey, encapsulated how China’s readiness to spend and build allowed Beijing to gain a foothold sufficiently strong that its interests could withstand a coup against an ally. “Today there is a bridge between the two sides of the River Niger,” he told me. “But there is also a bridge that links China and Niger.”

Yet the true value of China’s offer to guide Africa on a path to economic diversification and industrialization—the road that led the rich world to prosperity—rests on whether its construction spree is geared primarily toward cultivating the rulers who govern access to resources or toward broadening the opportunities of the population at large. Neither railways that simply connect Chinese-owned mines to Chinese-built ports for the export of commodities nor vanity projects of great cost but little economic usefulness will lift resource states’ inhabitants from their poverty. Martyn Davies, the chief executive of a South African consultancy called Frontier Advisory who has worked as an adviser on Chinese deals in Africa, told me, “When you have a commodity-driven economy, where a lot of people are excluded, it’s a silo economy. It’s very difficult to build infrastructure that supports inclusive growth. Is Chinese-financed infrastructure going to provide diversification? Which comes first?” He added, “African governments should never assume that responsibility for the development of our continent has been outsourced to Beijing.”

Beijing appears to be undercutting its side of the deal. Chinese goods like the counterfeit textiles flooding into northern Nigeria drown out hopes for industrialization, regardless of how many roads and railways Chinese companies lay. Lamido Sanusi, governor of Nigeria’s central bank from 2009 to 2014, put it well: “So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism. The British went to Africa and India to secure raw materials and markets. Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.”

09 September 2021

Nigeria's Smuggled Economy

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 61-62, 65:

Weapons and unwilling human traffic cross Nigeria’s northern border covertly. But the flow of counterfeit Chinese-made textiles has grown so voluminous that it would be impossible to keep it secret even if secrecy were required to ensure its safe passage. All the same, most of the shipments go through under cover of darkness. Those who control the trade engage in highly organized “settling,” or bribing, of the border officials, smoothing the textiles’ transit.

The Nigerian stretch is just the final leg of a 6,200-mile journey. It begins in Chinese factories, churning out imitations of the textiles that Nigerians previously produced for themselves, with their signature prime colors and waxiness to the touch. By the boatload they arrive in west Africa’s ports, chiefly Cotonou, Benin's biggest city, a tiny country beside Nigeria that has, like Montenegro in Europe or Paraguay in South America, become a state whose major economic activity is the trans-shipment of contraband. At the ports the counterfeit consignments are loaded onto trucks and either driven straight over the land border between Benin and western Nigeria or up through Niger and round to the border post with its taciturn chief. The trade is estimated to be worth about $2 billion a year, equivalent to about a fifth of all annual recorded imports of textiles, clothing, fabric, and yarn into the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Smuggling is a long-established profession here. Before colonial cartographers imposed the frontier, today’s smuggling routes were the byways of legitimate commerce. The border marks a delineation of what used to be British and French territory in west Africa, but no natural division of language or ethnicity exists. People on both sides speak Hausa, a tongue in which the word for smuggling, sumoga, strikes a less pejorative note than its English equivalent. The textile smuggling bosses are the oligarchs of the northern borderlands. For those in their pay, they can be generous benefactors.

...

The cheaper price of smuggled garments relative to locally produced ones was good news, superficially at least, for the traders’ hard-pressed customers but less so for the employees of Nigeria’s textile industry. “It is a pitiable situation,” said Hillary, apparently oblivious to his and his colleagues’ role in their compatriots’ downfall. “All the [textile factories] we have here have shut down. The workers are now on the streets.”

In the mid-1980s Nigeria had 175 textile mills. Over the quarter-century that followed, all but 25 shut down. Many of those that have struggled on do so only at a fraction of their capacity. Of the 350,000 people the industry employed in its heyday, making it comfortably Nigeria’s most important manufacturing sector, all but 25,000 have lost their jobs. Imports comprise 85 percent of the market, despite the fact that importing textiles is illegal. The World Bank has estimated that textiles smuggled into Nigeria through Benin are worth $2.2 billion a year, compared with local Nigerian production that has shriveled to $40 million annually. A team of experts working for the United Nations concluded in 2009, “The Nigerian textile industry is on the verge of a total collapse.” Given the power crisis, the near-impassable state of Nigeria’s roads, and the deluge of counterfeit clothes, it is a wonder that the industry kept going as long as it did.

08 September 2021

Congo's Tantalum Wealth

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle p. 30:

The Congolese are consistently rated as the planet’s poorest people, significantly worse off than other destitute Africans. In the decade from 2000, the Congolese were the only nationality whose gross domestic product per capita, a rough measure of average incomes, was less than a dollar a day.

Tantalum’s extremely high melting point and conductivity mean that electronic components made from it can be much smaller than those made from other metals. It is because tantalum capacitors can be small that the designers of electronic gadgets have been able to make them ever more compact and, over the past couple of decades, ubiquitous.

Congo is not the only repository of tantalum-bearing ores. Campaigners and reporters perennially declare that eastern Congo holds 80 percent of known stocks, but the figure is without foundation. Based on what sketchy data there are, Michael Nest, the author of a study of coltan, calculates that Congo and surrounding countries have about 10 percent of known reserves of tantalum-bearing ores. The real figures might be much higher, given that reserves elsewhere have been much more comprehensively assessed. Nonetheless, Congo still ranks as the second-most important producer of tantalum ores, after Australia, accounting for what Nest estimates to be 20 percent of annual supplies. Depending on the vagaries of supply chains, if you have a PlayStation or a pacemaker, an iPod, a laptop, or a mobile phone, there is roughly a one-in-five chance that a tiny piece of eastern Congo is pulsing within it.

The insatiable demand for consumer electronics has exacted a terrible price. The coltan trade has helped fund local militias and foreign armies that have terrorized eastern Congo for two decades, turning what should be a paradise into a crucible of war.

07 September 2021

Africa's Resource Curse

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 4-6:

The sheer number of people living in what are some of the planet’s richest states, as measured by natural resources, is staggering. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty, calculated as those living on $1.25 a day and adjusted for what that wretched sum will buy in each country, is 68 percent in Nigeria and 43 percent in Angola, respectively Africa’s first and second biggest oil and gas producers. In Zambia and Congo, whose shared border bisects Africa’s copper-belt, the extreme poverty rate is 75 percent and 88 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, 33 percent of Indians live in extreme poverty, 12 percent of Chinese, 0.7 percent of Mexicans, and 0.1 percent of Poles.

The phenomenon that economists call the “resource curse” does not, of course, offer a universal explanation for the existence of war or hunger, in Africa or anywhere else: corruption and ethnic violence have also befallen African countries where the resource industries are a relatively insignificant part of the economy, such as Kenya. Nor is every resource-rich country doomed: just look at Norway. But more often than not, some unpleasant things happen in countries where the extractive industries, as the oil and mining businesses are known, dominate the economy. The rest of the economy becomes distorted, as dollars pour in to buy resources. The revenue that governments receive from their nations’ resources is unearned: states simply license foreign companies to pump crude or dig up ores. This kind of income is called “economic rent” and does not make for good management. It creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels the contract between rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class does not need to tax the people to fund the government—so it has no need of their consent.

Unbeholden to the people, a resource-fueled regime tends to spend the national income on things that benefit its own interests: education spending falls as military budgets swell. The resource industry is hardwired for corruption. Kleptocracy, or government by theft, thrives. Once in power, there is little incentive to depart. An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is a recipe for “big man” politics. The world’s four longest-serving rulers—Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Paul Biya of Cameroon—each preside over an African state rich in oil or minerals. Between them they have ruled for 136 years.

From Russia’s oil-fired oligarchs to the conquistadores who plundered Latin America’s silver and gold centuries ago, resource rents concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. They engender what Said Djinnit, an Algerian politician who, as the UN’s top official in west Africa, has served as a mediator in a succession of coups, calls “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Survival means capturing that pot of rent. Often it means others must die.

The resource curse is not unique to Africa, but it is at its most virulent on the continent that is at once the world’s poorest and, arguably, its richest.

Africa accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population and just 2 percent of its cumulative gross domestic product, but it is the repository of 15 percent of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 percent of its platinum—and that is probably an underestimate, given that the continent has been less thoroughly prospected than others. The richest diamond mines are in Africa, as are significant deposits of uranium, copper, iron ore, bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum), and practically every other fruit of volcanic geology. By one calculation Africa holds about a third of the world’s hydrocarbon and mineral resources.

Outsiders often think of Africa as a great drain of philanthropy, a continent that guzzles aid to no avail and contributes little to the global economy in return. But look more closely at the resource industry, and the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world looks rather different. In 2010 fuel and mineral exports from Africa were worth $333 billion, more than seven times the value of the aid that went in the opposite direction (and that is before you factor in the vast sums spirited out of the continent through corruption and tax fiddles). Yet the disparity between life in the places where those resources are found and the places where they are consumed gives an indication of where the benefits of the oil and mining trade accrue—and why most Africans still barely scrape by. For every woman who dies in childbirth in France, a hundred die in the desert nation of Niger, a prime source of the uranium that fuels France’s nuclear-powered economy. The average Finn or South Korean can expect to live to eighty, nurtured by economies among whose most valuable companies are, respectively, Nokia and Samsung, the world’s top two mobile phone manufacturers. By contrast, if you happen to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the planet’s richest deposits of the minerals that are crucial to the manufacture of mobile phone batteries, you’ll be lucky to make it past fifty.

06 September 2021

Political Economy of the Roadblock

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa's Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 44-45:

Our two-jeep convoy slowed as it approached a roadblock deep in the tropical forests of one of eastern Congo’s national parks. Manning the roadblock were soldiers from the Congolese army, theoretically the institution that should safeguard the state’s monopoly on the use of force but, in practice, chiefly just another predator on civilians. As my Congolese companions negotiated nervously with the soldiers, I stepped away to take advantage of a break in a very long drive and relieve myself, only to sense someone rushing toward me. Hurriedly zipping up my fly, I turned to see a fast-approaching soldier brandishing his AK47. With a voice that signified a grave transgression, he declared, “It is forbidden to piss in the park.” Human urine, the soldier asserted, posed a threat to eastern Congo’s gorillas. I thought it best not to retort that the poor creatures had been poached close to extinction by, among others, the army nor that the park attracted far more militiamen than gorilla-watching tourists.

My crime, it transpired, carried a financial penalty. My companions took the soldier aside, and the matter was settled. Perhaps they talked him down, using the presence of a foreign journalist as leverage. Perhaps they slipped him a few dollars. As we drove away it occurred to me that we had witnessed the Congolese state in microcosm. The soldier was following the example set by Kabila, Katumba, Mwangachuchu, and Nkunda: capture a piece of territory, be it a remote intersection of potholed road, a vast copper concession, or the presidency itself; protect your claim with a gun, a threat, a semblance of law, or a shibboleth; and extract rent from it. The political economy of the roadblock has taken hold. The more the state crumbles, the greater the need for each individual to make ends meet however they can; the greater the looting, the more the authority of the state withers.

While we were visiting my historian brother during his sabbatical in Cameroon, we hired a driver to take us into the Southern Region. As we approached Lolodorf (a name dating back to German Kamerun), I stepped out of the car to take a photo of the sign. As I got back in the car, a policeman, who had been sitting in his car in the shade across the road, came over to tell us it was forbidden to take photos of road signs. After we politely asked why, he began to find fault with the windshield documentation required for the hired car. He went back and forth to his car several times, supposedly checking with his superiors, while we quietly waited to see how much of a bribe it would take to get free of him. He asked for all our IDs, and we gave him anything except our passports. After perhaps 20 minutes of quiet back and forth, we were able to pay him a "fine" equivalent to about US$10, enough for him to buy more beer for his afternoon in the shade.

04 September 2021

Collapse of Lebanon's Second Republic

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. xii-xiv (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

But the main issue was that the war chiefs–turned–political leaders seized control of the government and public sector, in concert with the generals of the Syrian occupying forces, and together they developed a system of governance that was entirely based on clientelistic mafia practices. They took advantage of the huge public works program for the reconstruction of the country, and of the bountiful financial manna this generated, to shamelessly enrich themselves and to entrench corruption as a system of government and a way of life, with the culpable consent of a powerful caste of arrogant bankers. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of thirty years of renewed opulence, euphoria, creativity, and vitality, when the population shamefully closed their eyes to the actions of this noxious political class.

In 2005, the Sunni prime minister Rafic Hariri, the only politician who was not a former war chief and who showed himself to be extremely hostile to the Syrian control of the country, was assassinated by the Syrians with the help of Hezbollah. This sparked a huge insurrection, which forced the Syrians to withdraw. Those previously banished (Michel Aoun) or who were political prisoners (Samir Geagea) returned. But former allies of Syria, such as Berri, Jumblatt, and the Hezbollah chiefs, managed to stay in power. New alliances sprang up between them and those who had returned, which led to the persistence of the same clientelism and corruption in political practices as under the occupation. This finally brought about the collapse of the country in 2020—a disaster which the present diary documents from day to day.

Despite this tormented history, Lebanon really had been, and perhaps could still be, a laboratory for some important political and social experiments. The first of these experiments is the management of multiculturalism and religious coexistence, which have endured despite violent convulsions, and lead every day to new forms of acculturation and cultural diversity. This small country has also been the laboratory where the processes of transforming family, clan, and community affiliation into a sense of citizenship are repeated on a daily basis. In other words, it is like a small-scale reenactment under a bell jar of the very genesis of any democracy.

Unfortunately these experiments have been slow to be reflected in political practice. They have suffered from being subverted or misappropriated by the ruling class, whose poor governance, corruption, and clientelization of the citizenry on the basis of community affiliation might also serve as a test case. The crisis in Lebanon in 2020 showed the dangers resulting from hyperliberal economic policies and the absence of any regulatory authority or control over the country’s social or economic life, which have turned political leaders into mafia bosses in their dealings with the nation’s citizens. The Lebanese people were forced to endure this hyperliberalism and the transformation of the public sector into a mafialike structure. They were obliged, day in and day out, to invent original forms of social and civic regulation and transaction, in the absence of any higher authority doing so. For several decades, they thought that this might also serve as a model, before they understood that a world where the banks and the super-wealthy seek to manage the life of ordinary citizens by depriving them of any official recourse to government was a complete disaster on all levels—be it social, economic, urban, or ecological. In this way as well, Lebanon’s recent history and collapse might serve as a forewarning and alarm bell for the entire planet.

03 September 2021

Lebanon's Civil War and Its Aftermath

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. x-xii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

All this explains why the tensions between the large religious groups remained very strong, in particular because the constitution created in 1945 implicitly gave more power to the roles reserved for Christians than to those accorded to Muslims. The Muslims demanded reforms, but the Christians, fearing for their status and survival and continuing to believe that Lebanon was created for them, refused. Moreover, the Christians held great fears at the prospect of the rise in power and militarization of the Palestinian organizations that had sprung from the refugee communities in Lebanon in 1948, and that started demanding to play a role in internal Lebanese politics in 1969 and 1970. The strategy of these organizations consisted in giving their support to Lebanese Muslims. Faced with this coalition of Islamic-Palestinian interests, the Lebanese Christians took fright and armed themselves in turn, leading inevitably to the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

This was indeed a civil war, in that most of the fighting was between the Lebanese people themselves, but it was also very much a foreign war, because the Palestinians, Syrians, and Israelis were also involved. In 1982 the Palestinian militias were forced out of Lebanon by the Israeli invasion. But the Israelis had to evacuate the invaded Lebanese territories and confine themselves to the southern border regions adjacent to Israel. This opened Lebanon’s doors to the Syrians, who allied themselves with the Lebanese Muslims and Druzes, and with war chiefs such as the Druze Walid Jumblatt or the Shiite Nabih Berri, as well as with the Shiite Hezbollah organization, which was engaged in a war with Israel in the regions it still occupied. For their part, the Christians resisted the Syrians for years, under the command of men such as Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea. In 1989, the reckless and unruly Christian general Michel Aoun took it into his head to unite the Christian ranks, and threw himself into devastating wars against his rivals on the same side, notably Samir Geagea, which led to the collapse of the Christian camp in 1990 and to the entire country falling to Syrian control.

This marked the end of the civil war and the start of what is called the second Lebanese republic, which is divided into two eras. In the first, from 1990 to 2005, Syria dominated the country and its ruling class. The Muslim or Druze war chiefs, Jumblatt, Berri, along with the Hezbollah leaders, but also the less powerful Christian leaders who had pledged allegiance to the Syrians, all took over the controls. The other Christian leaders, such as Geagea and Aoun, found themselves respectively either in prison or in exile. The allocation of posts along religious lines was reinstated during this period, but with a notable difference: the dominant positions were given to Muslims and no longer to Christians.

02 September 2021

Foundations of Lebanon's Exceptionalism

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. viii-x (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

This peculiar identity could undoubtedly be considered as the source of all the conflicts to come, but it also proved to be Lebanon’s defining characteristic for many years: a nation straddling the great cultures of the East and the West, a crossroads, a herald of coexistence, openness, cultural exchange and integration. For the thirty years from 1945 to 1975, despite a few minor jolts, Lebanon also figured as something of an exception among its neighbors. It was the only country in the region not to fall prey to a nationalist military dictatorship, like Egypt under Nasser and Iraq or Syria under the Baath parties. It was the only democracy of the Arab world, and one of very few in what was then called the third world. It also developed a liberal economy which has endured to this day, within a region entirely dominated by so-called socialist models—models which, in Nasser’s Egypt and in Syria and Iraq, led to disastrous nationalizations, to the disappearance of their middle classes and the impoverishment of their populations. Lebanon thus lived for thirty years in unbelievable opulence and enjoyed exceptional cultural and economic vitality.

It now seems clear that it was precisely because of the diversity of its population and the complexity of its human institutions that Lebanon avoided dictatorship and the so-called socialist models that beset the rest of the Arab world between 1950 and 1975. Religious affiliation, which in Lebanon is more cultural than strictly faith-based, underpinned all political relationships and balances. This was made manifest in the strangest political system imaginable, called “confessionalism.” All government posts were allocated approximately equally between religious communities. Every single employment position in the public sector, from the highest level in a ministry to its lowest echelons, was reserved for one or another community, depending on its presumed importance. The president of the republic had to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and so on. This political system prevented any single community or individual from controlling the government, and averted any possibility of hegemony or coups.

All this nevertheless created something like an oligarchic system, where the political leaders were systematically elected from the most important family clans within the large religious groups. They ruled the country collegially, on the basis of elections where the focus was always on the interests of the various religious communities, rather than on political issues. And yet the social classes that divided society were strongly intercultural. A real middle class had arisen from both Muslim and Christian communities, in the face of wealthy upper classes that also recruited from various groups, just as the working classes had members from both sides of the religious divide. However, social identity and affiliation never produced true class consciousness, but were always dominated by a very strong sense of religious, cultural, and community affiliation.