Progress thru cooperation
THIRTY-SEVEN years after its founding, the Organization of the Islamic Conference does not have much to show for. Founded in the aftermath of the burning of Al Aqsa mosque by a Jewish fanatic in 1969, the OIC has failed to come up to the minimum expectations of Muslim peoples worldwide. Stretching from Morocco to Indonesia, the Islamic world has many assets. These include an abundance of natural resources — not oil alone — a land mass that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic, strategically vital spots that include the Suez canal, the Dardanelles Straits, Bab el-Mandeb and the Straits of Malacca, a billion-plus population and a rich civilisational heritage. Yet Muslim governments have failed to build on these assets in a way that could lead to greater cultural and economic cooperation among their peoples and lift them out of poverty and ignorance into the modern world. These thoughts come to one’s mind each time there is a routine OIC meeting which achieves nothing besides offering a plethora of ritualistic speeches. Perhaps the first Muslim leader who showed realism on the question of Muslim unity and cooperation was the late Algerian leader Boumedienne, who emphasised at the second Islamic Summit conference in Lahore in 1974 the need for economic development if the unity of the Muslim ummah was to be based on a solid foundation.
Addressing the second World Islamic Economic Forum in Islamabad on Monday, President Pervez Musharraf called for the OIC’s restructuring without which, he said, the Muslim world’s socio-economic development was not possible. He also called for the Muslim world to have a strong industrial base, whose absence meant that the collective GDP of the Muslim countries was less than that of Germany. Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came up with some specific proposals when he called for exchanging expertise and knowledge among Muslim countries to utilise their natural resources and for the oil-rich Muslim countries to assist the least developed OIC members. These are ideas that need to be honed before they can be implemented. An exchange of scientific know-how is possible through an institutionalisation of scientific cooperation. On this there have been scores of resolutions, but nothing concrete has been done to establish institutions of higher scientific learning on a collective basis. Indeed, there are some Muslim countries which have a sizable pool of scientific manpower and a relatively high level of science and technology, such as Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia. But they are handicapped in their endeavours because of lack of financial resources. On the other hand, many oil-rich countries have accorded a low priority to education and science, even though they can afford to launch ambitious plans to develop their scientific and technological talent.
One major hurdle in the way of Muslim countries’ advancement is bad governance, to which President Musharraf referred. Basically, bad governance stems from the absence of democratic systems and institutions. Most Muslim countries are ruled by military dictators, civilian despots and monarchs. For that reason their domestic and foreign policies often serve the rulers’ interests rather than their peoples’. Because of low levels of industrialisation, most Muslim countries also lack a vibrant, well-informed middle class which could have a stake in democracy. The result is that the people-to-people relationship among Muslim states is conspicuous by its absence, and all that is being done by way of Islamic unity is at the governmental level. That deprives unity efforts of popular support and involvement.
Sindh’s ‘ghost’ schools
THE Sindh chief minister’s assurance that his government is making all-out efforts to realise the dream of universal literacy will be widely welcomed, albeit with a pinch of salt. Similar statements have been made from time to time but nothing substantial has come out of them. On this occasion, Dr Arbab Rahim also added that steps were being taken to reopen 1,300 closed schools in Sindh. This no doubt is Sindh’s response to President Musharraf’s recent statement reprimanding the Sindh government for its inadequate performance in the education sector and asking it to learn from Punjab’s example. But will reopening a little over a thousand ‘ghost’ schools — when the school census identified 7,442 such institutions in the province — upgrade the status of education? The government has earmarked Rs41.7 billion for education in Sindh and it is a pity that it has not yet made an impact. With so much money flowing into this sector, one cannot even fault the authorities for not doing enough financially.
The problem is obviously that of corruption and bad management. Why are all the non-functioning schools not being opened when they exist on paper and are gobbling up funds? Actually, all ghost schools should be revived, unless of course it is felt that they are not needed in the area where they are located. In that case they should be shifted to areas that need them. It is also important that the services of the non-performing teachers who draw handsome salaries from the exchequer to do nothing are terminated at once. There is no question of ‘reappointing’ them because they would set a bad example for young students. What actually needs urgent revamping is the system of monitoring, inspection and supervision that is expected to ensure that schools all over the province really work. This department needs to be staffed by honest and conscientious people who are incorruptible and are committed to the cause of education. Surely there must be individuals of this kind still around in the country. But if they are to function effectively, they should be given cooperation from the top.
Violence against women
THE recent chopping off of the hands near Khanpur in Punjab of two sisters married to two brothers comes as the latest act of savage violence against women. The brutal ‘punishment’ was meted out to the sisters because they had gone to visit their parents without the husbands’ permission. On Friday last, another man in Sindh’s Khairpur district shot his wife after an argument; the woman died on her way to hospital. In the Frontier, a foreign NGO worker who had accused a security guard of trying to rape her, and who had sustained injuries in the process, reportedly withdrew her complaint after a court issued an arrest warrant for her for failing to pursue the case properly. Not a day goes by without reports of violence perpetrated by men on their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. If it is not a case of a malevolent man’s honour being sullied by a close relation, it is that of a rape in which the woman victim ultimately finds herself on the wrong side of the law. Evil tribal customs that force minor girls into marriages to settle disputes also continue to plague society. If this is what Pakistan is in the 21st century, only heaven can help keep the country’s image unsullied.
Over the decades, the only difference made in matters concerning women is that now violence against them is being reported more openly. But this can be of little consolation to the wronged women; mere reporting of crime has not been a deterring factor for perpetrators of heinous acts of violence against women. The near absence of social responsibility among opinion leaders, the urban middle class, the political parties and the NGOs claiming to work at the grassroots level, and the existing set of anti-women laws are to blame for this sordid state of affairs.
Nicaragua: back to the future?
A PROMINENTLY moustachioed figure from the past has been haunting United States officials of late. No, I don’t mean Saddam Hussein, who was sentenced to death last Sunday in what is predictably (and unconvincingly) being hailed in certain quarters as yet another turning point for occupied Iraq. Sadly, the verdict is no more likely than any of the previous watersheds to put an end to the bloodletting in that benighted land.
Would a demonstrably fair trial have made any difference? Probably not. Not at this stage. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be: could a fair trial have been conducted in a country under foreign occupation? Not many people would deny that Saddam has a great deal of blood on his hands, and even those of us who view the death penalty as a state-sanctioned act of barbarism, would agree that he shouldn’t have been allowed to get away scot-free. But it isn’t easy to see how the interests of justice will be served if the ex-dictator goes to the gallows, while those responsible, directly or otherwise, for an estimated 655,000 Iraqi deaths in the years since Saddam was toppled incur no penalty.
In the case of Iraq, it is beginning to be widely accepted that the past is another country. For a decade and a half, the US has been keen to believe the same about another nation that experienced Washington-sponsored regime change, albeit via a different form of terrorism.
Nicaragua had a long history of military rule, authoritarianism and frequent intervention when the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) assumed power in 1979 following a popular insurrection. The liberation front took its name from Augusto Cesar Sandino, a nationalist rebel leader who had vociferously opposed the presence of US Marines on Nicaraguan soil in the early 20th century.
He was assassinated in 1934 by the National Guard under the command of General Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who staged a coup shortly afterwards. Thenceforth, the Somoza family was never more than a stone’s throw from the highest office in the land: the last of the Somozas fled only in the shadow of the Sandinista triumph.
The socialist agenda of the Sandinistas helped to conjure up a favourite American bugbear, the risk of “another Cuba”, only six years after a similar “threat” had been repelled in Chile. In the latter case, the fact that Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government had been democratically elected was wilfully ignored: the Nixon-Kissinger strategy was to “make the economy scream”. But that did not suffice, and the time-honoured device of a military coup had to be deployed to draw a line under the Chilean dream of an equitable economic order. An uncommonly heavy dose of neo-liberal economics followed, under the aegis of the exceptionally brutal Pinochet junta. Unlike Saddam, Pinochet has thus far succeeded in evading a trial.
Nicaragua faced a somewhat different strategy of subversion: infiltration by CIA-trained mercenaries, known as the Contras, whose brief was to target not just Sandinistas, but anyone who was supporting the revolution, be they peasants, teachers or priests. This was terrorism, pure and simple. And Ronald Reagan declared the Contras to be the moral equivalent of his nation’s founding fathers.
In response, the Sandinistas adopted an unusual tactic: they held elections, which were deemed to be fair by most international observers. The FSLN’s presidential candidate, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, won a handsome majority in 1984. Which inevitably led Washington to declare the vote unacceptable. When the US Congress decreed that the Contras, whose terrorist outrages were making headlines across the world, could no longer be funded, the Reagan White House opted for surreptitious means that involved the sale of weaponry, via Israel, to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, and the despatch of funds to the Contras with Saudi assistance.
The illegality of the convoluted process did little serious damage to the Reagan administration, although the man in charge of the operation, Colonel Oliver North, was eventually incarcerated for his troubles. The war of attrition caused an estimated 50,000 estimated fatalities. A large proportion of the dead consisted of innocent villagers who had been directly targeted rather than caught in the crossfire.
When the Sandinista government hauled the US before the World Court on the charge of mining Nicaraguan harbours, an adverse verdict failed to deter Washington from its course of action. By the time the next Nicaraguan elections rolled around in 1990, the US made it painfully clear that in the event of another victory for Ortega, the Contra conflict would indefinitely be prolonged. This democracy at gunpoint succeeded in producing desirable results from the American point of view: Ortega lost to the conservative candidate, Violeta Chamorro, and the Sandinistas handed over power without a fuss.
Nicaragua subsequently faded from international headlines, and it wasn’t particularly easy to ascertain whether the promised peace and prosperity followed once the nation had been plucked out of the Soviet orbit of influence (a scheme of things in which it had always been on the periphery). Not surprisingly, it turns out that after 16 years of neo-liberal economics, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. Up to 80 per cent of its population of 5.5 million lives on less than $2 a day. There was some economic growth in the 1990s, but it failed to trickle down. The levels of healthcare and education — areas in which the Sandinistas had taken encouraging initiatives — are abysmal. Unemployment is high and power breakdowns are a daily occurrence.
Given these conditions, perhaps the State Department in Washington ought not to have been particularly surprised when it emerged that Ortega stood a reasonable chance of winning this year’s presidential ballot. Actually, his strength in opinion polls was not a direct consequence of Nicaragua’s economic plight, which has been pretty poor all along; he was boosted by the inability of the conservative side of politics to agree on a single candidate.
The seriousness of the divide was demonstrated by the fact that even ageing Cold Warriors in the US found it difficult to choose between Eduardo Montealegre and Jose Rizo. The State Department and its man in Managua, US ambassador Paul Trivelli, have been backing Montealegre, whose credibility can be measured by the fact that he has accused Ortega of being friends with Osama bin Laden. But when Oliver North visited Nicaragua a couple of weeks ago, he wasn’t just returning to the scene of his crime: the trip was intended to bolster the fortunes of Rizo, who was also the preferred candidate of the more ideologically motivated ex-Contras.
At the same time, Ortega’s running mate, Jaime Morales, is himself a former Contra leader — albeit one who now believes he was used by Washington for its own ends. Hardcore Ortega partisans believe that he would strive to deliver what the Contra intervention prevented el Comandante and his comrades from achieving in the 1980s. However, some ex-supporters have been put off by his dubious political alliances, allegations of corruption and child abuse (which may or may not have been part of a smear campaign), and his backing for the Catholic Church’s successful attempt to ban abortion. Breakaway Sandinistas also put up a candidate in Sunday’s election, but without seriously eroding Ortega’s vote bank.
Back in the 1980s, the youthful Ortega was a symbol of hope for millions of Latin Americans, as well as a focus for US hatred. At 60 he’s mellower and chubbier than before. The military fatigues of yore are long gone. He talks more about God than Marx, and his public rallies have featured echoes of Lennon rather than Lenin, a Spanish version of the ex-Beatle’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ having been adopted as the Ortega campaign’s theme song. The moment of militancy has passed, he suggests, and his revolutionary zeal is now restricted to peaceful means. He doesn’t object to free trade with the US, but says he is determined to curb the excesses of “savage capitalism”.
Below his receding hairline Ortega still sports his iconic moustache, and that, notwithstanding all his professions of moderation, sufficed for the US to interfere in the Nicaraguan electoral process via a plethora of dire warnings and unconscionable threats, often couched in the viciously uncompromising language that characterises the Bush administration yet is also reminiscent of the Reagan era. Not only will aid and assistance cease in the event of an Ortega victory, but there are moves afoot to seal off the remittances from relatives working in the US and elsewhere that serve as a vital lifeline for substantial numbers of Nicaraguans.
The cautionary bullying appears not to have worked, just as an early endorsement from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez appears to have done no harm. Ortega needed at least 35 per cent of the vote and a five per cent lead over his nearest rival to win in the first round of balloting. Most analysts agreed that he wouldn’t stand much of a chance if the contest went to a second round. Preliminary results showed him leading the pack with 40 per cent, nearly eight points ahead of Montealegre.
Ortega’s extraordinary comeback won’t mean much if he is unable to meaningfully improve socio-economic conditions for the majority of his compatriots. On the other hand, if his best efforts are thwarted once more by the ideologically motivated machinations of an imperialist-minded neighbour, it will be another black mark against the most powerful rogue nation of all, which all too frequently favours the noose as an instrument of vengeance.