Gordon Campbell on APEC, Mali and Sleater-Kinney

apecthumbSideshows are inevitable when the main event – the coalition talks – is taking place behind closed doors and the usual sources for political news (i.e. the politicians themselves) are staying mum. Everyone has had to make do instead with a beat-up of anxiety over whether Christopher Luxon would make it to the airport in time to attend the APEC leaders meeting in San Francisco.

Seeing that the APEC show had started before the first time that Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters had managed to get into the same room together, APEC was always going to be a long shot. In the end, we learned that caretaker trade minister Damien O’Connor will do the honours. The impact of this substitution on the country’s fortunes remains an unknown.

It seems pretty safe to conclude though, that no-one living outside our Exclusive Economic Zone was losing any sleep over who would be representing New Zealand at APEC, or even whether we would be there at all. The world can cope with a delay in getting to know Christopher Luxon. Reportedly, his message to APEC was going to be:

‘I wanted to signal very strongly that we are open for business again and that we want to hustle in the world and we want to drive trade much harder.”

Maybe someone should tell the Prime Minister-elect that in North American parlance, a hustle commonly means a swindle, or the obtaining of something by illegal or dishonest means. Fortunately for us, APEC leaders were spared from finding out first hand that New Zealand’s new leader wants it known that he considers himself to be something of a hustler.

In reality, the touted APEC meeting between the leaders of China and the United States will dominate everything else. The words, the body language, the general vibe – it’s San Francisco, man – will all be scoured for signs of any thawing in the trade war between the two superpowers. Being told that New Zealand is “open for business” may not have resonated all that much.

Footnote: Even so, if Luxon had gone to APEC it would have been interesting to see what role (if any) he might have played in whatever message APEC chooses to send about Gaza. Six years ago, the Foreign Minister in the last National government explained why New Zealand had co-sponsored UN resolution 2334 that condemned Israeli settlements on the West Bank:

But that call by the [UN Security] Council was clear and deliberate because continuing settlement growth at anything like the [2017]rate will render the two state solution a purely academic concept. There will be nothing left to negotiate.

The other reality is that without a two state solution, demographic and security considerations will pose a serious challenge to the future character of Israel. [former UN Secretary of State] John Kerry put it starkly in his statement the week after the adoption of Resolution 2334: “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both – and it won’t ever really be at peace.”

Prophetic words. Israel’s own actions condemn it to never being at peace. Also… Given the accelerated pace of Israeli settlements since 2017, does Luxon agree that the two state solution is now a ‘purely academic concept’?

News from elsewhere

OK, so we’re living in an Information Age of 24/7 news feeds and non-stop celebrity gossip. Sure. Yet the focus for almost all of this newsy news is extremely narrow. Unless there’s a Third World earthquake/cyclone/train wreck with a high body count and available TV footage, or unless an American or a New Zealander has got in trouble somewhere off the grid, vast swathes of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America will remain invisible. These are Unknown Lands, just as much as they were in the Middle Ages. They are places where only Al Jazeera dares to tread.

For a useful example, take the civil war in Mali. At the end of December, the United Nations peacekeeping force will complete its withdrawal from Mali as ordered by the military government in the capital, Bamako. In 2021, that government threw in its lot with the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries. The UN exit has been preceded by the departure of the French forces which were supporting the previous civilian government.

Once these external forces have finally gone, a triangular war is likely to resume in earnest. The Bamako government/Wagner Group in the south, are confronted in northern Mali by three separate jihadist groups on one hand, and by the forces of ethnic Tuareg nationalism on the other.

The Tuaregs have been trying since 2011 to establish an independent state (or semi-autonomous region) in northern Mali called Azawad, or Azawegh. Some of the Tuareg fighters had served the Ghaddafi regime in Libya, but when Muammar Ghaddafi was deposed and killed, the Tuareg fighters brought weapons and motivation back to Mali, to forge a homeland.

Initially the Tuareg and jihadist forces had co-operated against the common enemy in the south, and it was this alliance that had triggered the French intervention. However, a peace deal signed in Algiers in 2015 was honoured by the Tuaregs, but not by the jihadists, who fought on. The collapse of the Algiers peace deal was largely caused by the Bamako government hiring the Wagner Group as its shock troops, and then ordering the UN to leave. A recent upsurge in the conflict has resulted.

As the Acled team of international observers says in its recent report on Mali, the Wagner Group has been carrying the fight in the north largely by terrorising the civilian population.

….Wagner uses brutal tactics to instil fear not previously seen in Mali before, including “torture, summary executions, beheadings, ejection of prisoners from aircraft, and the booby-trapping of corpses”.

As the BBC has recently reported:

An alliance of Tuareg groups, including the Co-ordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), said in a statement that it had now taken control of the area around Bamba, a town on the left bank of the River Niger between the cities of Timbuktu and Gao.

Obviously, the Tuareg forces do not want the Bamako/Wagner alliance to take over the bases being vacated by the departing UN forces. If that happened, the bases would become launching pads for military offensives into the north. Among other things, the civil war is serving as a testing ground for Russia’s ability to project neo-colonial force in Africa. This situation has clear similarities to what has happened in Ukraine. Even so, the Mali example is attracting only a fraction of the West’s attention.

Footnote Two: In Afghanistan, New Zealand left many of its local employees behind to face retribution from the Taliban, Germany is doing exactly the same thing in Mali. It is pulling its contribution to the UN forces out of Mali while refusing to accept it has any duty of care to the local translators and other workers who are already being targeted by jihadist groups for co-operating with the enemy. Absurdly, Germany is demanding absolute proof that any palpable risk exists.

Footnote Three: This column repeats another common trope of Western media commentary on Africa: For decades, the focus has been on wars, coups and bloodshed. At the risk of tokenism… Mali has long relied on the West African griot tradition (comprised of families of story tellers, history keepers and musicians) who have been the celebrants and repository of Mali’s shared culture for the past eight centuries.

The griot dynastic families of musicians – Keita,Wolof etc – rely on the kora (a complex harp-like instrument), the balafon (a kind of xylophone), the ngoni (a guitar-like instrument), and the voice. There is a debate over how much of the classic griot tradition survives today. At the same time, many Westerners have become aware of the modern Tuareg musical culture, via the band Tinariwen. Here’s the leading from Tinariwen’s breakthrough 2004 album.

In the desert, flat and empty, where nothing is given

My head is alert, awake

I have climbed up and climbed down

The mountains where I was born

I know in which caves the water is hidden

These worries are my friends

I’m always on familiar terms with them and that

Gives birth to the stories of my life….

Sleater-Kinney meets J. Smith Cameron

Between 1997 and 2006, Sleater-Kinney were not only a great and fiery rock’n’roll trio, but Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss embodied a collective ethos of feminism and creative equality. After a retirement in 2006 on the heels of their metal inspired opus The Woods, the band eventually returned, only to find that they had changed, and their cultural relevance had diminished.

The show I saw in Auckland at the Powerstation was a rare going-through-the motions experience. Janet Weiss, the group’s amazing drummer then left, after Annie Clarke (aka St Vincent) was brought in to produce an ill-advised lunge into electropop.

So with few expectations riding on the band these days, it’s great to welcome a strong new Sleater-Kinney track, and a terrific video that features J. Smith Cameron, best known as Gerry from the Succession TV series. Good song, great video. Nearly 20 years on, Sleater-Kinney are still contenders.