Monday, 15 November 2010

Confidential Agenda (Week ending 21 November)

AFRICA: Concerns on trade after the spats in Seoul

Worries about trade restrictions and protectionism peppers assessments from African diplomats of the G-20 summit in Seoul. Although Africa was sitting on the sidelines for most of the debate over currency values between the United States and China, several of Africa's commodity exporters could be squeezed badly if the money wars escalate into trade wars.

South Korean officials and many African states, represented by Presidents Bingu Mutharika of Malawi and Jacob Zuma of South Africa, and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, fought hard to keep development issues on the agenda. And G-20 sherpa Rhee Chang-yong insists they succeeded with the Seoul Development Consensus for Shared Growth document that members states signed on Friday.

Its broad thrust was that development aid should move away from cheap loans and grants for social projects to finance for productive and infrastructure projects that would sustain economic growth. The tone was very similar to new thinking from the World Bank's Africa Department in Washington.

On trade, the best the summiteers could do is to agree a new deadline – December 2011 – for an agreement in the Doha round of negotiations. The logic is that US President Barack Obama would have to push the deal through Congress before the 2012 elections.

Trade deals will be in the news for the next few weeks as activists resuscitate their campaign for North America and Europe to end the agricultural subsidies that depress the world market price of Africa's export commodities and as the European Union prepares for its summit with Africa in Libya late this month. Top of the agenda will be the current stalemate in negotiations for a new trade agreement between the EU and Africa (see Africa Confidential Vol 51 No 22).



SOUTH AFRICA: Another BRIC in the wall

Also at the G-20 summit in Seoul, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev revealed that the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) group had received yet another plea for admission to the new power bloc from South Africa. As with other pleas for admission from South Africa in past years, a cool answer was received. According to those who desire to rank countries in the manner of the ‘top 50 of all time’ compilations so popular on television, South Africa is not even close to BRIC status.

After BRIC come the ‘Next 11’, which ranks the countries next in order of emerging world economic and political power. It includes powerhouses like South Korea and Indonesia, but no South Africa. Medvedev made polite noises about South Africa in August just as he has just done, but has moved no further. Nor, according to observers, will he. Would admission to the club be a reflection of South Africa's power in the world, or another badge President Jacob Zuma can put on his bumper, many ask? Some friends of South Africa have quietly asked the country to drop this status-based initiative and when the next summit comes around we shall see how eager Zuma is to stay in the hunt.



NIGERIA: Iran arms imbroglio

An embarrassing international imbroglio for Tehran has started in Abuja after Nigerian security officials intercepted containers from Iran that contained weapons including 107 mm. rockets, which are normally only used as artillery, by conventional armies. The Embassy of Iran gave permission for one Iranian to be questioned but the other can claim diplomatic immunity.

Both are reported to be members of the 'Al Quds' elite section of the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guards, which is normally responsible for relations with and training of overseas militants. Agency reports suggest that the arms came from Bandar Abbas, one of Iran's Persian Gulf ports. Investigators are uncertain whether the arms were meant for use in Nigeria, and of not where was the destination of choice. If Iran cannot give Nigeria an convincing explanation about the provenance of the arms (Iran is under a United Natinons arms embargo), Abuja will have little choice but to refer the matter to the UN.



UNITED STATES/AFRICA: Your money's no good here

Act one, scene one: President Barack Obama's government fires a shot across the bows of the kleptocrats in a speech by US Attorney-General Eric Holder on 26 July addressing the assembled African heads of government at the African Union summit at Munyonyo, Uganda. Not the first time that a US president has set his sights on illegitimate wealth acquisition by African leaders, but so far so sabre-rattling.

Act one, scene two: Attorney-General Holder launches the 'Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative' and declares he has assigned a team of prosecuting lawyers.

Act two, scene one: Several US banks have asked certain African heads of state to move their personal accounts elsewhere, Africa Confidential has lately heard on excellent authority.

Act three is expected to play out during the coming weeks.


FRANCE/AFRICA: Ne touchez pas à mon bling

France's Cour de Cassation caused a sensation when it decided on 9 November that the substantial property holdings of three African heads of state in France were a legitimate subject of criminal investigation by the French state. The investigation will centre on whether the vast wealth held in France by Presidents Omar Ali Bongo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and their families and associates, constitutes 'handling of stolen public funds'.

Expect no rush to the courts as the investigating magistrate to lead the inquiry has yet to be appointed. But the case is now occupying centre-stage in French politics because it has become part of a wider debate about whether the government has been assaulting, in trying to scotch this and other investigations, the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. More, therefore, than the bling of various potentates is at stake, and so the likelihood of the case failing is reduced. There could be long faces in the big-name boutiques of the Avenue Montaigne so favoured by the plutocrats of Francophone Africa.


WESTERN SAHARA/MOROCCO: Talk or fight?

What is behind the recent violence in Western Sahara? Certainly more to do with the talks in New York State that have just ended than with any strategic changes on the ground. As the informal talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front got under way, Moroccan security forces launched a violent campaign against a tent city that Polisario had set up outside Laayoune. The tent was intended to highlight the bad living conditions inside the main camps where the refugees normally live.

Morocco's forceful reaction, which claimed several lives, was intended to show it won't be bounced, whatever the cost. The UN, which has a Special Envoy in play, does not come out of this with its image as an effective go-between much enhanced. Whether the latest confrontations will fade, now that the New York talks have finished, or whether a spiral of violent escalation has begun should become clearer this week.

CONGO-KINSHASA: Kinshasa murder trial on trial

Justice for Floribert Chebeya at last (AC Vol 51 Nos 12 & 14)? Possibly. Five police officers are facing trial in Kinshasa having been charged with the murder of the Congo-Kinshasa human rights activist. Chebeya had managed to survive angering both Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent-Désiré Kabila before being summoned to a meeting with police chief General John Numbi last June. It is not known if the meeting occurred before his battered body was found the next day. His death was followed by a tsunami of protest from donors, NGOs and human-rights advocates around the world.

Eight police officers were originally charged, but three have taken to their heels. Congolese law obliges a military court to hear the case which is certain, in the coming weeks, to be an arena for confrontation between the government and human and civil rights activists. The activists are determined to see that General Numbi gives evidence and to test the limits of the government's intentions towards the rule of law and civil society institutions.

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