Monday, 27 August 2007

SA/Nigeria: on parallel tracks?


27 August 2007


Lagos



Dear Confidentialers,

First of all, a belated apology for the long time, no write. Back at maison Africa Confidential, I've been working with colleagues on a couple of new projects. Firstly, we will be launching a new publication focusing on Africa's fast-growing relations with Asia later this year. And secondly, we are working on an overhaul of our website which will offer more interesting reports and analyses, as well as a clearer presentation of the current Africa Confidential material.

At last Africa Confidential will enter the blogosphere. This will give you an easier way to respond to the reports in each fortnight's edition, as well as these editorial musings. So you can wait for our web engineers to set up the blog and readers' reply facilities or send messages immediately to: info@africa-confidential.com - we'd love to hear your critiques, complaints and even concurrences.

Meanwhile our hard-working politicians have been summer-holidaying or summiteering in Lusaka. I've spent most of August on the road in search of stories. This time, the most interesting moments were in the frantic politics of South Africa and Nigeria and there are a few parallels between the two countries.

The saga of South Africa's embattled health minister Manto Thshabalala Msimang is a case in point. South African reporters' dogged pursuit of the hapless Minister resembled Nigerian journalists in hot pursuit of a particularly venal political target.

My old friend Mondli Makhanya has been editor of the Sunday Times for four dramatic years. He's faced down the crudest political pressure and his now leading a relentless investigation of Minister's Msimang's professional career culminating is last week's headline: 'Manto - a drunk and a thief'.

After the dismantling of apartheid and the ANC's election victory in 1994, many feared that the critical and independent journalism that undermined apartheid would be replaced by bland hackery without a mission. Proponents of sunshine journalism charged up their laptops in anticipation.

Such notions have been dumped in the recycling bin. Instead tough-minded editors such as Makhanya and the Mail and Guardian Editor Ferial Hafferjee are taking on the transgressions of political and corporate South Africa with a doggedness that matches the best investigative journalists in Nigeria and Kenya.

Newspaper journalists the world over face sharp budget cuts; nowhere do these cuts bite harder than in Africa. Yet South Africa's newspapers are undergoing a post-apartheid renaissance, more titles are appearing and the existing ones are getting feistier.

As for commercial realities - the Sunday Times is a highly profitable newspaper group that earned over US$30 million last year. That will help pay the legal bills after Minister Msimang's fistful of indictments.

Another South Africa-Nigeria parallel is the ambition of Jacob Zuma. Close-up, former Deputy President Zuma looks a much more skilled operator than his Nigerian counterpart, ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Both men were pushed from their deputy presidential perches by their respective Presidents; both have been accused of grand corruption. Yet Zuma has become one of South Africa's most popular politicians while Atiku's long stay in the United States of America casts him as a fugitive from justice.

There is a lesson for journalists. Zuma's popularity within the governing ANC is stronger than ever despite almost universally hostile press coverage. Atiku organised hugely favourable press coverage (and he owned several papers) by presenting himself as the main opponent of detested President Olusegun Obasanjo. Now even those seasoned ANC insiders who assured journalists that 'Zuma - the president just won't happen' are looking very nervous.

On to the third and most worrying South Africa-Nigeria parallel: the killing fields of kwaZulu/Natal and the Niger Delta. In the early 1990s, the boiling political rivalries between Nelson Mandela's ANC and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha party were being encouraged by shadowy apartheid die-hards and could have derailed the transition to free elections. Zuma's many disparagers today often forget that it was his patient and skilled mediation in his home state that finally brokered a peace.

Such skills are hugely in demand in the Niger Delta today. But it will also need much more than talk. A structural reform of the oil business that will end the shadowy relations between successive Nigerian regimes and Big Oil will help. There is a central political question: the need for a hardheaded review of the constitutional relations between the federal centre, the state governments and the troubled local governments.

Nigerians are being cheated of billions of oil dollars annually by an unholy network of business, political and military allies. Disbursements of over a billion dollars a year to the state governments of Rivers and Delta respectively made by the Obasanjo government should have alleviated the joblessness, environmental despoliation and the social crisis.

The murderous fighting in the Delta is a baptism of fire for President Umaru Yar' Adua. The militants and the criminals want to test the limits. But it is partly a protest against attempts by Nigeria's anti-corruption investigators to unravel the corrupt payment channels, and send some of the offending politicians and business people to gaol. Their strategy is to organise gang wars in which more than 100 Nigerians have lost their lives in the past two weeks. We'll be returning to this with news from Zimbabwe, Morocco and Congo-Kinshasa in detail in next week's Africa Confidential.

Until then yours confidentially