Africa has had a good press this last few years. It deserves it. In most countries life is getting better, and people have more power to work, to spend, to choose. But not everywhere. And particularly not in one country that few know, that fewer have visited, and that today is on fire.
In the English language the words ‘spy’ and ‘Russia’ are fellow travellers. The Russian state is secretive by nature and the methods of the secret state are the methods of the spy services: surveillance, interception, and information control. All of these techniques are part of the political management system of Putin’s Russia, and they have all been greatly enhanced in the last fifteen years. Thanks to two outstanding Russian journalists, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, we now know much more about how Russia uses and co-opts the worlds of digital communication and information flow to monitor its citizens at home, and shape their world view. On a recent visit to London, Borogan and Soldatov joined CapX for a conversation about their recent book The Red Web on Russia’s domestic programme of surveillance and censorship.
Earlier this year, India’s finance minister used the occasion of his budget to declare a truce. There would be no more multi-billion tax raids on big foreign companies in India. Investors could rest easy: the days of ‘tax terrorism’ were over. One month later, the London-listed Cairn Energy opened a brown envelope to find that the Indian authorities were demanding $3.2 billion in extra tax. Cairn had just joined countless other investors who have learned that India’s economy is schizophrenic. It will extend one hand as a friend, and the other as an enemy. If India is to get anywhere near its massive potential, it needs treatment.
Why is Switzerland so rich? Why is Portugal so poor? And what exactly is the recipe for going from poor to rich? These are the sorts of questions that development economists and policy folk from a thousand think-tanks spend their days and nights puzzling over. But according to a group of economists and data-crunchers at Harvard’s Center for International Development, the answers may not be as elusive as some fear.
Last week a suicide bomber killed himself in a failed attack at the Temple of Karnak in the Egyptian city of Luxor. A day later the attack was claimed by a group claiming to be part of the Islamic State movement, the same group that claimed responsibility for a rocket attack the previous week in Egyptian-controlled North Sinai. In the same week there was a gun attack at the Pyramids of Giza to the south of Cairo.Is Egypt slipping back to the dark days of the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s?
If all goes according to plan, the next few weeks or months should see many if not most of us made measurably poorer. It’s nothing to do with taxes, crashes, or meltdowns. It’s nothing to do with politics. It’s something that will happen as a result of a well-established routine run by investment banks, financial advisors, and a host of big companies with very familiar names. It’s a kind of capitalist death wish, and something that hasn’t been seen for a while – but now it’s back.
Four years ago the popular uprisings which optimists called the Arab Spring swept through North Africa. One after another dictatorial governments collapsed while populations danced in the public squares. But there was one striking regional exception. In Egypt’s southern neighbour Sudan which was and is ruled by a sour-faced soldier called Omar Al-Bashir, there was rather little sign of revolution. A couple of demonstrations quickly started but equally quickly they were put to an end by Sudan’s uninhibited security services. As Field Marshal Al-Bashir himself grimly put it, ‘Anyone waiting for an Arab Spring in Sudan is going to be waiting a while.’
Africa is the fastest-growing continental economy in the world today, thanks in large part to the fact that its population is so young. But one consequence of having a lot of young people is that Africa faces a massive practical problem, the problem of how to educate its millions of poor young people in the knowledge and skills that can make them prosperous. As it happens, a very large number of poor Africans have already found a solution to that problem. But some of the best known aid agencies and international organizations don’t like this solution at all, and indeed some are campaigning hard to put a stop to it.
SO there I was one rainy Sunday doing some admin tasks when my phone rang. The man on the line wanted to know if I would be interested in riding a motorbike through Death Valley in the company of a couple of the people who ran the Italian Ducati motorcycle company. I conceded that I would be interested. “Can you be in Los Angeles tomorrow?” he added, as a kind of afterthought. I thought no, but I said yes … yes, I might be able to do that.
THE NAMES roll off the map like scene settings in some classic western: Furnace Creek, and Desolation Canyon; Badwater, Wildrose, and Stove Pipe Wells; Zabriskie Point, and the Funeral Mountains. This is Death Valley: the hottest, highest, lowest, fiercest place in the contiguous United States, the great natural barrier that separates the body of the American southwest from the Pacific Ocean, a national park the size of Connecticut where daytime temperatures can climb above 130 degrees. A century and a half ago when pioneering European emigrants took a wrong turn and stumbled into Death Valley on their way to the California gold fields, they were lucky anyone survived to tell the story. Today you can drive across the national park in the air-conditioned space of an afternoon – if you want. But that’s no way to tour Death Valley. To experience the dimensions and the desolation and awesome grandeur of the Valley – to travel fast and yet to experience the scene physically – for that you need a motorcycle.
IN its early days the UK edition of GQ Magazine had an outstandingly successful editor called Michael VerMeulen. He was from Chicago, where he had been a close associate of the playwright David Mamet – so, by no means the typical London fashion editor. He was also pretty much the exact opposite of me in every way – thick-set, confrontational, and completely at home in the sexy, spiteful, intrigue-rich world of glossy magazine publishing. Anyway, having nothing better to do I phoned him out of the blue and pitched a couple of feature ideas which he turned down flat. But he added “Come on over, we’ll have a drink and see if we can make sense of you”.
MY BROTHER? Sure, I remember killing my brother. Don’t you remember killing yours? I killed mine after school on Saturday afternoon. I remember how I did it. It was easy. It’s what brotherly love is all about. And he was younger, so he deserved it.
IT IS EASY to forget the river, in London. So when I was ushered (at an early hour) into the riverside office of the Financial Times – to discuss with the editor a profile of the great financial newspaper – I was startled suddenly to see the Thames running so close and so fast, almost lapping the FT‘s panoramic windows beneath Southwark Bridge.