Thursday, 25 January 2007

At the crossroads of Africa

Farringdon Road,
London EC1


Dear Readers,

It is one of those weeks when London lives up to its old reputation as the crossroads of Africa. The capital has hosted a procession of African stars beginning with one of Africa's most distinguished intellectuals, Ali Mazrui, who was followed in short order by Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete, two of Nigeria's three presidential candidates and then a bevy of cinema notables jetting in for the premieres of the two latest African box office hits - The Last King of Scotland and Blood Diamond.

Ever the controversialist, Mazrui took on America's Samuel P. Huntington and his Clash of Civilisations. In his first outing at London University, Mazrui argued that the United States' 'cultural imperialism' of the 21st century was more pernicious than Britain's 'racial imperialism' of the 19th. He contrasted reactions to the clubbing to death of a dozen Kenyan prisoners in a colonial gaol a century ago and the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Even during the worst excesses of colonialism there was a clear line of responsibility leading to the colonial government, which put the errant officials in the Kenyan atrocity on trial. That line of responsibility, Mazrui says, is missing in America's new imperium. Part of the problem may be that Washington denies that it is running an empire, even if much of the country's opinion ­ from liberal interventionists to the neo-conservatives ­ concurs that the American empire is an international reality.

Somalia is the latest theatre for Washington's new empire builders, Mazrui told Africa Confidential after the meeting: the American bombings in southern Somalia are a disaster for the region, and Ethiopia in particular has become a willing instrument in a proxy war. The idea that Ethiopian troops should have marched into Mogadishu and installed a new regime with no popular mandate seemed perverse to Mazrui, as did the latest exhortations from Washington to President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed's government to open a dialogue with the Islamists they had just ousted. Firmly in the camp of the Somalo-pessimists, Mazrui feared that this new frontline in the war on terror would further divide East Africa and rebound badly for Ethiopia.

Sudan is bleaker still. The killings in Darfur would be stopped only by imposing targeted sanctions against senior members of President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir's regime and the issuing of credible threats to refer them to the International Criminal Court, Mazrui said. Regional outrage over the war in Iraq has shielded the regime, he lamented.

As Mazrui was speaking at London University, Tanzania's President Kikwete took the podium at Chatham House alongside Britain's Development Minister Hilary Benn. As the meeting was billed to tackle the fight against corruption, one of the first questions asked was about the British investigation into BAE Systems' alleged mega-commissions on the sale of its air-traffic control system to Tanzania. President Kikwete chose the escape clause, '...improper to discuss it while the investigation continued', closely followed by Mr Benn, who allowed himself a tilt at Prime Minister Tony Blair who had been a keen advocate of the BAE deal with Tanzania: '...of course, no one is above the law.' Perhaps a few swipes at Mr Blair before his replacement by Chancellor Gordon Brown this year might help Mr Benn's bid for the Foreign Secretary's job.

Hailed by London's Tanzanian community at another meeting at Central Hall in Westminster, Kikwete exuded a star quality. The big questions about his presidency are still open. Is he ready to shake up Tanzanian politics and bring a new generation of ministers into government? Is his zero-tolerance policy on corruption credible? (The BAE deal was signed and sealed under his predecessor Benjamin Mkapa.) Most importantly, can Kikwete settle the festering political row over Zanzibar and its mounting list of electoral and political injustices? For now, he has the benefit of the doubt.

Then we went on to a rented apartment opposite Saudi Arabia's palatial Embassy in Mayfair to see Nigeria's leading opposition candidate in this year's presidential elections, General Muhammadu Buhari. My first encounter with the General was almost 25 years ago in Lagos when he had just overthrown an unpopular civilian regime. Initially welcoming the military's return, Nigerians quickly tired of the Buhari government's 'war against indiscipline' and its propensity to arrest journalists.

Today, Buhari is a credible civilian politician. Our lengthy conversation ranged across Nigeria's political landscape and he insisted he will fight the elections on the issues ­ and on the record of President Olusegun Obasanjo's government. That may be just as well. His main rival, Umaru Yar'Adua, is an old school friend as well as the candidate for the governing People's Democratic Party.

Sacked Vice-President Atiku Abubakar was due to jet into London for a political meeting the following day, fresh from a month's holiday in America. Although he and Buhari have a cooperation pact, the General clearly is no Abubakar enthusiast. The pact's main value may be that it irritates their common foe, President Obasanjo.

Neither of the candidates had time to visit the cinema. That's a shame because The Last King of Scotland, which premiered in London during the week, is a powerful parable about political life in Africa and foreign perfidy. It should also remind Britain's ­ and now America's Africa policy-makers ­ that three decades ago Uganda's President Milton Obote was removed and replaced by Britain's and Israel's candidate, one Idi Amin Dada. Did someone mention Somalia?

Next week our correspondents in Addis Ababa will be bringing the inside story from the African Union summit and its deliberations on Somalia, Sudan and the rest of a crowded agenda, as well as more reports from correspondents in Abuja, Nairobi and Conakry.

Until then, yours confidentially

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