Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A peek through the war on terror viewfinder

Tuesday 23 October 2007
United Nations Secretariat
New York City
USA

Dear Confidentialers,

A whirlwind trip through New York and Washington this week shows that Africa has moved up the diplomatic and economic agenda - despite the Iraq-Iran obsessions here. However, so much of Africa is seen through the war on terror viewfinder. At the peak of the Cold War, there was no conflict in Africa that an earnest policy wonk wouldn't squeeze fit into a global scheme of US foreign policy.

The same holds today. The wonk can be pro- or anti-government but the fallacy is the same: Africa cannot allowed to be Africa, it must be corralled into a wider template of global power relations. Of course, Africa has its own international interests but the wonks attach too little importance to these.

Somalia has become Africa's front in the war on terror for the wonks. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Mogadishu and Kismayo have become Iraq writ small for Washington and Addis Ababa. More puzzlingly, the Sudanese regime in Khartoum has become a source of vital intelligence on terrorism for the West. Even the once-reviled Moammar el Gadaffi of Libya is now feted as another key intelligence source - more logically because the overthrow of Gadaffi's regime is near the top of Al Qaida's to-do list in North Africa. At the other end of the credibility scale, serious-looking men in suits have asked me how many militants in the Niger Delta are on the Al Qaida payroll - as though Nigerians are incapable of running their own rebellions.

These arguments were well aired last Friday at the 50th annual meeting of the African Studies Association of the USA in New York. Washington's Ambassador to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Cindy Corville, was put up to defend US Africa policy against a critical barrage led by African intellectuals such as Mahmoud Mamdani of Columbia University and Akwe Amosu of the Open Society Institute. The critics' theme was that US policy in Africa has become irredeemably militarised and is now a poorly resourced sideshow to its failing policy in the Middle East.

As the African speakers picked over US policy, aided by speakers from the floor such as ex-USAID consultant Joel Barkin, Corville struggled to convince. None of the speakers on the floor - Americans and Africans alike - spoke in defence of US policy. Some even rubbished Corville's invitation for critics to engage with administration officials.

US policy had an easier ride back at base in Washington, at the Annual Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. That is partly because the blame for economic failures is more widely and fairly shared between the many different parties. The other reason is that top US diplomat turned President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick scored some palpable hits in his new role, just three months into the job. African delegates to the Bank's meeting told me they were impressed by Zoellick's grasp of the key issues and by his approach: the World Bank would no longer see itself as the last word on development economics, producing policy prescriptions from on high, but rather as a team player, contributing money and ideas.

On Zoellick's team are two Nigerian women technocrats - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Obi Ezekwesili - in top positions at the Bank, but the pressure is on for many more senior African appointments in the Bank in line with its renewed focus on the continent.

Next door at the IMF, an unhappier scene prevails. Managing Director Rodrigo de Rato hobbles out of the job, badly gored by a hostile board, some of whom are already expressing reservations about the new man, France's Dominque Strauss-Kahn, who takes over on 1 November.

Whatever the quality of their respective leaderships, the Bank and the Fund's toughest challenge is to stay relevant. The better news about Africa's economies has done the two institutions little good: better economic management in African capitals and higher commodity demand from China and India, not the Bretton Woods bureaucrats, get the credit. So Zoellick's more pragmatic and less bombastic approach fits the new zeitgeist.

It's a good time to be running a company in Africa. Watch out for lots of money from the Bank's private investment arm, the International Finance Corporation, which Zoellick and IFC chief Lars Thunnel hope will give Africa's private sector the boost it need to take advantage of the global rush for the continent's resources.

Yours confidentially

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