The United Nations, African Politics, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Dearest readers, I admit up front that this post is half-baked and thematically inconsistent.  I apologize for that, but it comes from a bunch of ideas that have been floating in my head and that seem connected, although I am not sure how.  For those of you who wanted another football post, there are always more coming soon.  For those of you who are sick of football, enjoy.

To my shock, the United Nations Human Rights Council finally adopted a resolution that applies human rights principles and protections to sexual orientation and gender identity.  This is a shocking first for the UN, and particularly for the ironically named Human Rights Council (can such a body truly cares about human rights includes members such as China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, and, until recently, Libya?)  This is a UN resolution so it is essentially meaningless except in symbolism.  Nevertheless, the votes were fascinating, and telling about LGBT rights and a changing world.

This particular resolution was spearheaded by South Africa, and was supported by 22 other countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Hungary, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay.  (In 2003, Brazil was the first nation to put forward such a resolution.)

Opposed to the resolutions were the following members: Angola, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Russia, and Moldova.

Zambia, Burkina Faso, and China abstained, Kyrgyzstan was absent, and Libya had been suspended for obvious reasons.

The resolution was co-sponsored by the following countries:  Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Uruguay.

There is an immediately obvious divide primarily between a Middle East/Africa/predominantly Islamic countries bloc and everyone else.  It’s not quite that universal or simple though.  Russia and Moldova are really the lone Western who voted against the resolution.  Noticeably, historically Catholic countries favored the resolution (despite the Church’s opposition to all things LGBT.)  Latin America, for example, really came through, but then again Latin American governments are trending  progressive on LGBT issues, particularly Argentina and Uruguay.  The support even extended into the East despite the opposition of the Middle East.  All the non-Muslim Asian countries (save China) voted in favor of the resolution.  And even China’s abstention is cause for curiosity.

China usually votes against LGBT protections; this abstention is something of a shock.  The real surprises however, were Mauritius, Zambia, and Burkina Faso.  For years, the whole of Africa has fallen into line, and, led by Nigeria, has voted as a bloc against LGBT rights.  That two of those nations, Burkina Faso (predominantly Muslim) and Zambia (predominantly Christian) abstained from the vote is in itself jaw-dropping.  That Mauritius actually voted in favor of the resolution is a minor miracle.  Mauritius is a tiny island country near Madagascar.  Consensual homosexuality is still illegal there.  I am curious to know above all else why exactly Mauritius voted as it did.

In my search for the answer, an answer I still do not know, I read about the government of Mauritius.  Unlike most of Africa, Mauritius has a functioning democracy with peaceful transitions of power.  It rates at the top of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which probably has something to do with why Mauritius voted in favor of the UN resolution.  The better a nation’s human rights record, the more likely it was to vote in favor of the resolution.

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The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is basically what it sounds like: it rates how well the African nations are governed.  A little background is in order.  The Index, which is researched and published by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, was intended as a way for Africans to monitor how good their governments are.  The Foundation was founded by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born billionaire (he made his fortune through telecommunications and founded Celtel before selling it for over $3 billion), who is determined to help the Africa clean itself up, and join the world community as an equal partner.  The Foundation awards the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, a prize given to African leaders who, during the course of their reign, significantly improve their countries and then (and this is key) allow the democratic process to work by peacefully transferring power to their successors.  The prize is $5 million and then $200,000 a year for the rest of the former leader’s life.  (This has led critics to call the prize a bribe, and there is an element of truth in that.  There are legitimate questions about the purpose and efficacy of the Ibrahim Prize.)  The obvious model for such a leader is Nelson Mandela, although the Prize began well after the Great Man stepped down.  The New Yorker published a fascinating profile (subscription required) of Mo Ibrahim this past March, and I encourage you to read it if you can.

The 2010 Ibrahim Index of African Governance lists the top five nations as Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana, Cape Verde, and South Africa.  It is probably not coincidence that three of the top five nations are islands, and thus less likely to be unsettled by disturbances in neighboring countries.  (Not all islands scored well though.  Madagascar and Comoros are in the bottom half.)  South Africa, for its many faults, has had a relatively stable government since the fall of the apartheid regime, and Botswana has been a model of good governance and economic growth for decades.  Unsurprisingly, one of the (only two) recipients of the Ibrahim Prize was Festus Mogae, the former President of Botswana.  The prize was not awarded in either 2009 or 2010, which is a rather telling and sad fact about governance in a continent of over 50 nations.

Admittedly, using the Ibrahim Index is a very faulty of determining whether a nation is well-governed.  The criteria are somewhat suspect, and good governance is a subjective and nebulous concept, more ideal than quantifiable.  Good governance is also, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder.  The brilliant Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade sings a song excoriating the corruption and the failed promises of her nation’s democracy yet the Ibrahim Index ranks Cape Verde near the top.  Sometimes, the Ibrahim Index just quantifies the obvious.  Things in Somalia are very, very bad, which is why it is at the bottom of the list with 8 points out of a total 100.  In comparison, the next worst governed country is Chad with 31 points.  This is pretty compelling numerical evidence that Somalia is indeed hell on Earth.

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In the New Yorker profile of Ibrahim, there was a question of who the next possible Ibrahim Prize winner would be, and sadly there were no contenders on the immediate horizon.  The one possibility is the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Johnson Sirleaf is an interesting case.  A former World Bank economist, she is the first woman to be elected the head of an African state, and thus far the only one.  She is extremely popular abroad, although I am not a Liberian and cannot vouch for her popularity at home.  Supposedly, she is not quite so loved in her own country.  (The true test will be whether she is reelected this fall.)  Her presidency followed the horrific and destructive dictatorships of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor and years of civil war, which included, among other horrors, the use of children as soldiers.

Johnson Sirleaf’s Liberia is not exactly a success story.  There are many, many problems, and the country has a very long way to go.  To her credit, Johnson Sirleaf acknowledges this.  The most recent Ibrahim Index tells an interesting story though.  Liberia is ranked 36th of 53, but that number alone is deceiving.  Liberia’s score have gone up significantly between 2004-05 and 2008-09.  Scores in specific areas have also significantly improved.  These areas include Safety and Rule of Law, Participation and Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity (where the score is still near the bottom), and even a bit in Human Development (health and social services), where  Liberia is woefully lacking.

None of this is to say that Liberia is good.  The Index hints however, that Liberia is on the right track.  Nevertheless, that statement is highly debatable.  Charges of corruption have been thrown at Johnson Sirleaf and her government.  In fairness, it is difficult to discern what is truth and what is propaganda.

I would like to think that Johnson Sirleaf is succeeding, if for no other reason than because the modern world has yet to produce a truly great female leader (although British Tories would probably disagree with my assessment.)  More importantly, the people of Liberia have suffered tremendously, and only a great leader can even start to turn around their nation.  It may well be impossible for one person to fix horrors that evolved over decades.  But a great leader may be able to stem the tide and put the nation on the right path.  Time will tell if that person is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

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Football Infidelity, The “Other Teams”

I have a confession to make: when it comes to football, I am not a monogamist.  I am married to Barcelona, and don’t have any the same kind of emotional connection with any other team.  I cry when they win major championships, and I  feel sick when they lose.  I have watched countless YouTube videos, and read about long-since retired players just because they played in a Blaugrana jersey.  I can sing the Cant del Barça from memory, even though I speak not a word of Catalan.  The only place in the world I want to travel to is Barcelona, only because I want to go to the Camp Nou.

But . . . I have a wandering eye, and have been tempted by the allures of other teams.  None of my other teams are Spanish or will ever face Barcelona in competition.  Nevertheless, I feel like I am sneaking around, and in the back of my mind, I fear that someone will catch me cheering for another team on television, or holding a different colored scarf.  It’s the fear that a blue-and-red-clad representation of the club (possibly looking like Xavi) will stand in front of me with tears in his eyes and ask, “Am I not enough for you?  Don’t you love me anymore?”

Granted, even the most devoted football fans passionately follow their national team.  But national teams are different from club sides.  National teams play far less often and in different kinds of competition.  Plus, it’s your country, so there is a different kind of honor at stake.  Loving you national team is like loving one’s parent, but that is not the same kind of intimacy that one has with a club or a romantic partner.  (Disclaimer: this is all metaphor.  Please don’t think I advocate forsaking real human love for a football team; there is no comparison.)

Coming from a country where football is not a major sport, and where no major football league existed throughout my young life, I never developed an early devotion to a specific club.  It was not until well after I had my first kiss, had my first sexual experiences, had my heart broken, and learned the difference between relationships and flings, that I started looking for clubs.  My experiences were further colored by yeas of watching tennis, where one supports ephemeral players rather than the constancy of clubs.  Attachments in tennis come and go, only to be replaced by new ones.  From all these experiences I learned that absolute fidelity is overrated.

You never find your club; the club finds you.  When I first started to teach myself about football, way back in 2002 or so, the first team that attracted me was Manchester United.  While I have never completely lost fondness for them, it was merely a first crush, a way to rid myself of football virginity.  My fling with United did leave me with one lasting scar, I have never been comfortable with Arsenal even though they play a similar (if inferior) style to Barcelona.  I did try, but I could never get up the energy to root for them.

After United I looked at those sides that dazzled with titles, such as Real Madrid and Liverpool (Italy always turned me off), but it felt wrong.  From afar they are glamorous, up close they are frigid.  Did you ever have a date where you had nothing in common with the other person and even the physical attraction was a dud?  That was Madrid and Liverpool.

I found Barcelona in 2006 through Ronaldinho and the build-up to the World Cup.  I was mesmerized.  He left, but I stayed because Barcelona was the perfect fit.  Barcelona the city (a gay-friendly, liberal hotspot dripping with culture and history), and the ethos of the club (left-leaning, socially conscious, anti-central authority, center of Catalan identity, “more than a club”) fit in nicely with my own values.  Although those carefully cultivated imagine–both mine and the club’s–are not 100% accurate, the damage was done, and I had my true team.

It’s not like any of my other clubs are in La Liga, mind you.  That is outright polygamy, and that is illegal (unless you are in Spain and then you are almost obligated to support your team and either Real or Barça.  Me however, I’m not from Barcelona.)

Now you may be scratching your head and saying to yourself, “2002?  MLS was already around by then.”  That is true, but back then Philadelphia did not have a team.  I was born in Philadelphia.  I lived around Philadelphia most of my life.  The overwhelming majority of my family immigrated to Philadelphia three or four generations ago and stayed there.  I root for Philadelphia teams, even when I don’t care for the sport.  It is home, and I sure as hell was not going to root for another US city’s club.  Now Philadelphia has a club, and the Union is indeed one of my other teams.

This past season, I found another team in another league, and there is definitely some heavy-duty flirting.  This team is not any threat to Barcelona–in fact, it not even be in its nation’s top league–but it makes me smile and my heart beat a little bit faster.

This club is Germany’s St. Pauli (of Hamburg), which was relegated out of the Bundesliga.  They started well, they played well, and then fell apart.  That is not why I have fallen for St. Pauli though.  No, St. Pauli, like Barcelona, has a very strong identity, and it is a very socially conscious one.  The club has a devil-may-care, punk rock, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, be kind to others, atmosphere, which is why St. Pauli also has fans all over Germany.  (Once again, the truth is more complicated, but the identity is  pervasive.)  How can one help but fall for a club whose logo is a skull and crossbones?  Or whose former president is an openly gay man?  Or that one cannot mention St. Pauli without mentioning the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red light district.  And so St. Pauli too has reached me, and I found another club that I wanted to support. That St. Pauli is the composite of Barcelona–a club where failure is not only tolerated, it is somewhat expected–only endears the club to me further.

It’s not really cheating is it?  Barcelona will never know about the other teams.  And besides, it’s not like Barcelona has me as its only fan.