Sunday, 14 January 2007

Out with the old...


Dear Readers,

Happy New Year! I say that with more fervour than usual. The new year's prospects didn't look auspicious as the old year hobbled away. Just as I was setting off for the airport for a swing through West Africa, the radio and television news channels were demanding analysis of the new - although widely predicted - war in the Horn of Africa. Only the obsessives at Africa Confidential could be relied on to turn up at a television studio on 25 December en route to Heathrow to talk about the bombing of Mogadishu.

Thanks to split-second timing I didn't miss the plane but I flew out of London for Africa with a strong sense of déjà vu. And that sense is echoing across Africa in response to news of air strikes on suspected terrorists. The new Somalia war reminds many of the bad old days of the Cold War when the elephants of capitalism and Communism stamped all over the African grass.

I heard that complaint from officials at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and from political activists in Nigeria and Ghana. In this year when Ghana celebrates 50 years of Independence from Britain, the continent should dance to its own tunes, they insisted

In the many African states that will hold elections this year, the worry is that the democracy struggle will take second place to Africa's new frontline in the war on terror. There will be money for bombing raids but not for new roads or water pipes.

Apart from the rhetoric, few Western policymakers are making the link between security and development, let alone democracy. So Equatorial Guinea and Sudan have become Western allies in the war on terror and have negotiated a few concessions en route.

As in the Cold War heydays of Mobutu Sese Seko and PW Botha, 2007 looks like a good time to be an authoritarian leader presiding over valuable natural resources. If the West won't buy, a phone call to China or India should clinch the sale - for a good price and without the lecture on human rights.

The Asian trading axis with Africa will go on growing exponentially. Africa's trade with China hit $50 billion last year, level-pegging with the European and the North America trading blocs. That's driving up African commodity prices and African economic growth - to an average rate of 5.3% across the region in 2007 according to the World Bank.

Now the harder question is whether Africa will follow the Asian lead: that is by investing the commodity export bonanzas in education and infrastructure to achieve a measure of economic self-reliance.

It certainly will be tough to be a human rights activist or a journalist in Africa in 2007. The last year has seen rights activists physically assaulted in the Gambia and Congo-Brazzaville, journalists on trial for printing a joke in Morocco, spurious libel cases against reporters investigating corruption in Sierra Leone, and security agents raiding newspapers in Kenya and Nigeria, home to the liveliest newspapers in Africa.

It will be a busy year for the reporters and the politicians. Almost half the states in Africa are holding elections at presidential, parliamentary or local level: in the Gambia, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa and Kenya. The votes in Nigeria and Kenya with their threatened apocalypses will grab the headlines but many of the other polls will sneak under the radar.

So back to our starting point to assure that none of these will slip underneath our radar, neither will the dramatic events of the last three weeks in Somalia. The immediate question is where the escalation of the Somali conflict will lead?

Much will depend on the diplomatic skills of Abdullahi Yusuf's Transitional Federal government and its ability to win broad-based support across Somalia's complex clan structure and to cut a deal with the warlords who had been driven out of Mogadishu by the Islamists.

Plans to bring in a multi-national peacekeeping force quickly to shore up the Abdullahi government are stuck in negotiations. Assembling a credible force for Somalia is of the highest urgency. An Ethiopian working hand in glove with United States' counter terrorist units would be an incendiary affront to Somali nationalist sentiment and the target of Islamist attacks from the remnants of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council regime and its allies.

In this week's special 16-page edition of Africa Confidential we look at all the forthcoming elections, peace deals and oil deals in detail as well as the upcoming cabinet reshuffles and succession tactics. We also carry a special political map of Africa that lists all the key political events in 2007 and essential economic data.

Confidentially yours

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