Friday, 6 July 2007

The debate is far from over

Black Star Square

Dear Confidentialers,

This is where it all started just over 50 years ago with Ghana's declaration of independence from the British colonial authorities and founding President Kwame Nkrumah announcing his vision of a United States of Africa. So this week's African Union summit here has been steeped in history as visiting leaders pay obeisance to Nkrumah's memory and his unity project.

You won't be too surprised to learn that the summit didn't end with the declaration of a federal government of Africa's 53 states. Instead, it's back to the study groups to produce more research documents for the next AU summit in Addis Ababa next January. The Accra Declaration released at midnight on Tuesday was a victory for Thabo Mbeki and the pragmatists; and a setback for brother Muammar el Gadaffi and the advocates of an immediately proclaimed African federal government.

For us journalists camped out in the media tent adjacent to the garishly pink-tiled conference centre, philosophical debate about a federal African government seemed rather arcane when set against the ongoing devastation in Darfur, Mogadishu and eastern Congo not to mention the economic and political chaos in Zimbabwe. Why, we wondered, were these issues being sidelined?

Enter Ghana's brisk Foreign Minister Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo Addo to tell the legendary Ofeibea Quist Arcton of National Public Radio, Will Ross of the BBC and myself that African Union summits - like their European counterparts - were able to consider more than one topic at a time. Er okay, so we pursued a different line of questioning and Will succeeded in getting the 60-something Akufo Addo to predict that a Union Government for Africa could be established in his lifetime - '…if we go about it in an organised manner we will get there.'

Seasoned summit reporters struggled to give the story legs. Yes, we had brother El Gadaffi and his demotic outbursts for the unity cause but few of his besuited pragmatist adversaries were willing to press their case with the media. Inside the conference chamber, the in-camera debating sessions were getting less fraternal with a stand-up row between El Gadaffi and Mbeki. However, our Ghanaian hosts assured us all the 'vigorous discourse' would end in a consensual document.

That much was true and President John Kufuor assured me the Accra Declaration was passed unanimously and 'there were no dissenters'. So it's hard to see what happened to the pan-African enthusiasms of Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade, whose foreign minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio said his President had his pen ready to sign up to a Union Government by the end of the summit. Wade and El Gadaffi weren't in the chamber for the final reading of the summit communiqué. Instead I was delighted to learn that that El Gadaffi had retreated to the bar of my (Libyan-owned) hotel for political consultations. The debate is far from over and there is growing civil society pressure for African states to move faster towards economic and political integration.

Perhaps that is the value of the Accra summit: it gave new life to the Pan African vision even if the men in the sensible shoes remain in charge of the agenda. At least they see more clearly the need to end the petty rules that restrict the mobility and choices of millions of Africans as well as the outdated regulations that hold back trade between African states. The underlying vitality of Pan-Africanism is its economic logic and need to break away from the system of Balkanised markets.

For journalists, of course, the real meat of summits is the corridor chatter and the chance encounters with grandees of international diplomacy and the occasional head of state. As the security guards relaxed a notch, I managed to walk unharrassed into the VIP salon at the conference centre to see Wade holding forth at length on the virtues of an immediate continental political union. Within earshot of a bevy of Lisbon officials looking after Portugal's Prime Minister Socrates, Wade explained how European unity had transformed the economic fortunes of a 'poor country' like Portugal. One may fault the sweeping rhetoric but octogenarian Wade's energy is compelling - even if the suits won this time.

Then across the room to trouble European Union President José Manuel Barroso with a question about why Portugal was breaking ranks with EU sanctions and inviting Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe to the Euro-Africa summit scheduled for November in Lisbon. The EU's vital relationship with the African continent cannot be derailed for the sake of a country-specific issue, he huffed. That was his way of telling Whitehall to put the Zimbabwe sanctions in their pipe and smoke them - a civil offence after national smoking ban introduced on Britain on 1 July. Barroso evidently has been looking on frustratedly while China strengthens commercial and diplomatic ties leaving the Europeans looking flat-footed. That was going to change under his Presidency, he suggested.

Sitting elegantly on a Chesterfield behind Barroso was the new World Bank Vice President for Africa, Nigeria's former Education Minister Obi Ezekwesili who has moved seamlessly from defending the Obasanjo government's economic reforms to being an equally energetic proponent of the Bank's role in Africa. Press reports of the Bank's declining operations in Africa were wrong, she told me, operations last year were up to $5.7 billion, a billion dollars more than the previous year. Above all, she wanted to counter the idea that the bank still imposed policies on African economies: 'they are designing and running their own economic programmes these days'.

So you might guess that the latest issue of Africa Confidential is suffused with nuggets from the Accra summit but it also carries a report on the political shenanigans between Zimbabwean power brokers while President Mugabe goes on tour, and an inside account of the political fallout of the scandal at Tanzania's central bank.

For those following the race for South Africa's presidency, we carry an extended analysis of the style and merits of the two business candidates, Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale. On the economy pages you'll find a detailed examination of the issues raised by three new books on oil politics in Africa. As a friend of two of the authors I should declare a fraternal interest in their work getting a wider audience. They could have scarcely picked a better time to publish their tomes on this theme. And on the back page, the relentless Congolese General Laurent Nkunda talks to Africa Confidential in his hilltop redoubt, and we break some news about how Norway's Development Minister is pressing the World Bank to work on the devastating effects of trade corruption and the ensuing capital flight from Africa. So another full fortnight's reading…

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Yours confidentially

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