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qatar1Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, was forced to apologise today after party workers created a poster depicting Alex Salmond in Arab dress.

Mr Rennie said he was very embarrassed by the actions of Lib Dem workers who had been trying to draw attention to the first minister’s decision to compare Scotland with Qatar while on a tour of the Gulf states.

The poster, which went out on the Scottish Lib Dems Twitter feed, stated: “Salmond hails ‘similarities’ between Qatar and Scotland. A glimpse into Salmond’s independent Scotland perhaps?”

Underneath the headline was a mocked-up picture of Mr Salmond wearing Arab dress and walking a camel through the desert.

Alongside were three bullet points: “Absolute monarchy controls all aspects of life; Gay rights suppressed and no legal recognition of same sex marriage; Death penalty used for crimes against the state.”

It was finished with the question: “Mr Salmond’s independent Scotland?”

Mr Rennie was quick to disown the poster, make sure it was removed from the web and to apologise publicly for the mock-up.

Speaking on BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland, Mr Rennie said: “I apologise for the offence that has clearly been caused by the cartoon on the first minister’s remarks in Qatar. Although I did not approve its publication, I take responsibility for it. It has been interpreted in ways that were not intended. It has now been withdrawn. I apologise.”

However, Mr Rennie’s apology for the picture did not stop others from pursuing the more general point – about Scotland’s similarities with Qatar.

Former Labour Downing Street adviser John McTernan tweeted: “Alex Salmond: Scotland is remarkably like Qatar. How? Unelected government? Sharia law? Anti-gay laws? Foreign workers = 85% of population?”

Despite strong objections from others on Twitter, Mr McTernan continued with other tweets through the day defending his position, at one point adding: “I think while the FM be-struts the world he takes the prize for pompous absurdity.”

Mr McTernan even drew a comparison with previous countries which had been linked favourable to Scotland by senior Nationalists in the past, particularly the so-called “Arc of Prosperity” nations Iceland and Ireland.

“Qataris should be very afraid,” he tweeted.

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<em>Map: US government</em>

Map: US government

By Andrew Macdonell in South Africa

Free and fair elections have been the exception rather than the rule in much of Africa, but this week’s election in Zambia offers hope that democracy may be starting to put down firm roots in this part of the world.

Tomorrow – Tuesday, 20 September – Zambians go to the polls to elect a president for the fifth time since multi-party democracy was re-established in 1991. The 2011 election is essentially a contest between the incumbent president Rupiah Banda and Michael Sata – who, as his nickname of “King Cobra” suggests, is a tough populist politician from the “take no prisoners” school of politics.

Unusually for an African election, the result appears to be too close to call, with different opinion polls suggesting leads for both of the main contenders.

As the incumbent, President Banda and the Movement of Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) start in pole position, but a number of senior defections and the death of former President Chiluba in June this year have been big blows to the party.

The main opposition challenger, Michael Sata, and his Patriotic Front (PF), are popular in the mineral-rich Copperbelt and will be looking to build on their strong showing in 2008. In that election, which was precipitated by the death in office of President Mwanawasa, Sata lost to Banda by only 35,000 votes or by a margin of 2 per cent. While the subsequent disbanding of the opposition alliance between the PF and the United Party for National Development (UPND) will have cost him support, he remains a strong contender.

Unlike the PF, which is very much made in Sata’s image, Rupiah Banda follows in the footsteps of Frederick Chiluba (1991–2002) and Levy Mwanawasa (2002–08) as the third Zambian president to lead the MMD.

There is clearly no love lost between the two candidates, and the sparring between the two has become increasingly personal. Sata has questioned Banda’s nationality and hence his eligibility to be president, while Banda has been quoted as saying:

“Sata likes to call himself ‘the cobra’. I never trust a creature that slithers on its stomach. Would you trust a snake? I warn all Zambians: if you play with the cobra, expect to be bitten. But that is democracy for you. Everybody has a right to stand, even Michael Sata.”

The election is being held against the backdrop of a struggling economy and widespread poverty. The global economic downturn and the fall in commodity prices has hit Zambia’s copper-based economy hard. The truth, however, is that most Zambians have been living below the poverty line for years and little of any recent economic growth has trickled down to them. Zambia lies 150th out of the 169 countries surveyed by the United Nations Human Development Index, and an estimated 64 per cent of Zambians live below the poverty line.

While unemployment, poor infrastructure and government corruption are key election issues, it is Chinese investment in Zambia that has taken centre stage. Trade exchanges between the two countries have almost doubled since 2009, to $2.8 billion last year, and the Chinese are behind numerous investment schemes such as a new $2 billion hydroelectric plant at Kafue Gorge.

President Banda has enthusiastically welcomed this foreign investment. However, not all Zambians are so happy and many question the tax concessions that the Chinese have been granted and the conditions of employment at their plants. Sata has tapped into this unease and has taken a much more populist approach on the Chinese question by calling for the stricter enforcement of regulations regarding the wages paid by foreign investors. Sata’s stance has lead to accusations that he is “anti-Chinese”, something he denies while at the same time saying that he is merely protecting the lot of normal Zambians.

But this election has not been all about the two main contenders or even about China.

One of the most colourful and controversial characters in the campaign has been Dora Siliya, a former broadcaster and the MMD spokesperson. Her campaign speeches are evidently littered with bawdy sexual innuendo and homophobic outbursts.

At one campaign stop, she was accused of handing out pictures of two men kissing to make her point against homosexuality – while the Post newspaper has reported that at another campaign rally she encouraged the men present to admire her soft buttocks.

“You men here, are you not admiring me?” she was quoted as asking. “Are you admiring each other’s beards? You women, can you get pregnant from a fellow woman? Isn’t that the end of the world? You men can you enjoy touching each other’s hard bums instead of a woman’s?”

The men in the crowd evidently replied in unison: “We admire a lot, especially your buttocks!”

It is, however, a measure of the morally conservative nature of Zambian society that Siliya’s homophobic comments are overwhelmingly supported and that it is political suicide to be defined as a supporter of gay rights.

At first, Sata did condemn Siliya for distributing “pornographic pictures” of the two men. However, when he started to be characterised as a supporter of homosexuality, felt compelled to deny that he in any way supports gay rights.

“Police should arrest the two men in Siliya’s picture”, Sata now says.

Intolerance aside, Zambians have every reason to be proud of their young democracy. Free and peaceful elections now appear to be the norm, and this Tuesday’s poll is expected to pass without serious incident.

Whether the incumbent or the “cobra” is elected president, it is hoped that all accept the verdict gracefully so that Zambian democracy can be the real winner.

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CJ de Mooi at Sheffield

CJ de Mooi at Sheffield

Yesterday saw the conclusion of this year’s British chess championship, a fortnight-long event held in Sheffield. This was generally deemed to have been an interesting tournament with some good, exciting and high-standard chess – but it concluded amid high-profile acrimony that had very little to do with the game itself.

The main tournaments – in which upwards of 900 people took part – ended on Friday, with only one issue remaining to be decided. The two leading British grandmasters, Cornishman Michael Adams and Nigel Short (ex of Lancashire, now of Greece), had tied for first place in the main championship and were required to meet again in short-form quickplay chess on Saturday morning to determine who would be this year’s champion.

Before that happened, however, at 9:30am on Saturday, came the general prizegiving ceremony, covering a considerable spread of chess ability.

The prizes were meant to be handed over by Connagh-Joseph de Mooi – commonly known as CJ de Mooi – who, as well as being a model and a panellist on the BBC show Eggheads, is also president of the English Chess Federation (ECF), having been elected to the post in 2009.

In Sheffield yesterday, de Mooi – who describes himself as a “gay equality” supporter – was wearing a red T-shirt sponsored by the charity Stonewall and bearing the legend “Some people are gay. Get over it!” In the lead-up to the presentation, de Mooi’s choice of attire was questioned and this led to him not presenting the prizes. Amid conflicting accounts of what had happened, a considerable hooha kicked off, both in the tournament hall and online.

At first it was unclear who had made the request of de Mooi: candidates ranged from the tournament organisers, the on-the-day arbiters, the management at the Ponds Forge centre where the event was being staged, or even a chess player or a parent of a junior player.

Gradually a clearer picture emerged. Just before midday on Saturday, de Mooi commented on Twitter: “I’ll make an official statement when play is over [in the Adams–Short playoff]. I stress this was not an ECF board (the members here were supportive) or venue decision.”

Then, late afternoon, de Mooi commented directly on the English Chess Forum (which, confusingly, is not linked to the English Chess Federation), both in an official “Statement” and in a personal – but still public – addendum. “At this morning’s prizegiving ceremony of the Darwin Strategic British Chess Championships 2011,” de Mooi wrote in the statement, “an arbiter approached me saying she had ‘personal reservations’ about me wearing a Stonewall T-shirt when presenting prizes to juniors. It was apparently inappropriate for me to wear something mentioning ‘sexuality’ in such an environment.

“I did not consider this an issue as I had worn it the previous day in the playing hall and no objections were raised. I am fully CRB [criminal records bureau] checked and was registering my public support of a charity. The other 2 arbiters said ‘no problem with it’ and ‘I hadn’t actually noticed’ but after a discussion returned and suggested if I wanted to wear it, I could just present to the adults. I refused saying ‘I either present all the prizes or none’ but I would leave it as their decision.”

There was then “consultation”, after which de Mooi says he was told “there had been ‘some complaints’. He then sat out the presentation ceremony.

“Personally, I was incensed,” de Mooi said in his addendum. “No matter how I try to drag chess into the 21st century, I seem to continually face ‘antediluvian’ attitudes. Whether it relates to lifestyle, accepted tradition, maintaining a status quo, whatever – if change wasn’t wanted or expected, why was I elected? I am utterly passionate about chess – I have used up most of my personal savings to provide ‘the strongest’ and ‘best ever British Championships’ this year and really don’t want to have to deal with this sort of stuff too.”

He added: ”I won’t change (in either sense!) and will continue to work hard to promote chess and what I think is right. I have heard nothing but support from the GMs [grandmasters], other players, sponsors ECF board and many other parties.

“If this isn’t what the English Chess Federation wants, please ask me to stand down or vote me out in October. However, you know who I am, what I do and what I support (incidentally, I don’t support gay rights, I support gay equality) I humbly dare to suggest that no-one has any issue with my chess endeavours and how I work to promote and support the game. […] I am happy and honoured to be ECF President but I am foremost CJ de Mooi and it’s him who defines the job, not the other way around.”

De Mooi has since offered his resignation “for the benefit of the ECF and the future reputation of chess”. He also said: “I am a passionate person and I know that’s one of the main reasons people are able to support me. However, although I don’t apologise for who I am, what I choose to promote or how I go about doing that, I may have over reacted on this occasion (despite my ‘irritation’) and it’s unfortunate that something such as this threatens to overshadow a magnificent event that so many people worked for, most far more than me.”

The mention of a female arbiter – the chess equivalent of a referee or umpire – made it easy to identify the person who had initially spoken with de Mooi, as there was only one such person present at Sheffield. Lara Barnes – a chess player and arbiter based in north-eastern England – is a familiar face on the Scottish chess circuit, where she is well-liked and respected.

This morning, Barnes – having earlier commented on Facebook – posted her response on the English Chess Forum: “Here is my side of the incident (I am posting against the advice of some, but I am getting hate emails claiming that I am homophobic and need to clear this up). I spoke to David [Welch – tournament manager] and Alex [McFarlane – chief arbiter] before the prize-giving suggesting that the T-shirt in question may not be advisable seeing as children were going to be in photographs with it and the charity in question was promoting a sexuality-based issue. I personally raised over £200 for the same charity on the Sunday night quiz [midway through the tournament] […] I was just worried that children who had come for chess may be exploited in photo opportunities for a different issue/charity.

“They [Welsh and McFarlane] were reluctant to speak to CJ about it and I said that I would. I told CJ that we usually dressed up more formally for the prize-giving and that it was only my opinion that his T-shirt may be controversial. He said ‘well I won’t present the prizes then’. When I told David Welch this he said that I had made a mistake in his opinion. I then left it to the ‘officials’ to make any decision. I believe that they still wanted CJ to present the prizes to the British Championship for which he had made a large financial contribution and huge publicity effort. He declined, saying ‘all or nothing’.

“May I add that, and many of my friends know already, it would be highly hypocritical of me to ‘oppose’ any gay-equality charity as I have had gay relationships in the past. Any thought of ‘anti-gay’ anything was never in my mind when I suggested the T-shirt was inappropriate for a national chess championships prize-giving, it was just inappropriate. I have many Wychwood Brewery T-shirts promoting real ale, but I would not wear them to the British Championships prize-giving. My only fault may have been being naive to the controversy that this brought up.”

Barnes also says that in today’s Sunday Times article on the controversy, “CJ’s claim that he was ‘banned’ from wearing the T-shirt is just untrue.” She also said: “He was never asked to ‘take it off’. I only queried whether it was appropriate, had he said ‘yes, I believe it is’ then I would not have had anything further to say at the time and he would have gone ahead with the prize-giving. He is the president of the organisation for which I do voluntary work and I would have bowed to his authority.”

The Sunday Times piece was co-written by grandmaster and 1971 British champion Ray Keene, who has been tweeting vigorously about the controversy since the start. Keene – long retired as a player – is a noted chess author and organiser but is himself no stranger to controversy. The dispute has also been covered by the Guardian.

It should also be noted that the T-shirt in question forms part of a high-profile anti-prejudice campaign, involving politicians – for instance Boris Johnson – and recently translated into Gaelic.

Also noteworthy is that this year’s British chess championship was unusual in having a dress code. This was set at “smart casual” – but seemingly only applied to players, not officials.

Asked this morning what would happen in a similar situation north of the border (where the British championship is held from time to time, most recently in 2003 in Edinburgh), Andy Howie, executive director of Chess Scotland, said: “As executive director I don’t often get asked as I am normally working the event. Often when I am, I will be wearing my Chess Arbiters’ Association top, a Scottish Chess top or a Scottish Junior Chess top. If I ever had to present at the Scottish [championship] I would be in a suit.”

“For official events like the Scottish championships / SJC Chess For Kicks final etc I would wear a suit”, said Chess Scotland president Michael Hanley. “In fact I was ‘suited up’ at the Scottish but had a chat with Lord Kirkwood and asked him to present the trophies as he had just agreed to be new honorary president. For less formal events like Hamilton Junior Congresses, I have no problem wearing a T-shirt advertising my business.”

Oh, and while all the T-shirt palaver was going on, there was some chess taking place. Adams and Short drew the first of their playoff games, before the former world no.4 Adams won the second to retain the British title. It would be neat to be able to report that one of the players used the Stonewall System in one of these games – and Short, known to have a wry sense of humour, was perhaps tempted. But a pair of more mainstream openings – a Queen’s Indian Defence and a Caro-Kann – were played…

Update, late evening 7 August: A statement from Andrew Farthing, chief executive of the English Chess Federation – along with new statements from Lara Barnes and CJ de Mooi – can be found here, about two-thirds down the page. Basically it seems that there has been a cooling-off period, time has passed in a useful way, misunderstandings have been sorted out and the two main parties have found it in themselves to say nice things about each other. CJ de Mooi’s offer of resignation has been declined by the ECF.

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