Africa's Twin Curses
Tom Porteous is a freelance writer and analyst who was formerly with BBC Africa and served as conflict management adviser for Africa with the British Foreign Office.
2005 was dubbed the "year of Africa" by the G8 and it brought some welcome progress in conflict resolution on a continent which has had more than its share of political instability: a peace deal in Sudan was finalized, U.N. peacekeepers left Sierra Leone, elections were held in Liberia and Burundi, even the peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo appeared to be moving forward.
But Africa's troubles are not over. There are continuing armed conflicts in Sudan (Darfur), Côte d'Ivoire, Uganda, Nigeria, Somalia and increasing tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea and between Sudan and Chad. Those countries where peace has been achieved remain vulnerable to future conflict. Throughout the continent effective formulae for the emergence of representative states capable of delivering successful economic development, justice and security remain elusive.
On top of Africa's internal problems there are also two non-African issues which are hampering efforts to resolve conflicts and to promote better government and economic development.
The first is the industrialized world's increasing thirst and competition for African oil, which seems to take precedence over pious statements about African development.
Oil has long been a curse for most people in oil producing countries in Africa. Countries like Nigeria (where almost a fifth of all Africans south of the Sahara live, Angola and Equatorial Guinea would probably be better off—less corrupt, violent, unstable and poverty-stricken—had they left the black stuff in the ground.
Since their public relations disasters in
Now the oil curse is spreading to other African states and it is increasingly accompanied by competition for political and economic influence between
Concerned about their image (and
The oil started to flow in 1999 and the prospect of billions of dollars of oil revenue may well have helped to grease Sudan's peace deal. Sharing the money between north and south was a major element of the agreement. But oil is unlikely to nurture the emergence of good, representative government in either part of the country.
Indeed the abject marginalization of the vast majority of Sudanese from economic and political power is contributing to the conflict in Darfur (where there are unconfirmed rumors of new oil discoveries) and to unrest elsewhere in Sudan. The Sudanese government provided a good indication of its main priority (political survival) when it spent some of its early oil revenue building an arms factory.
In Chad, the situation is little better. When commercial oil reserves were discovered there, few expected that the oil would benefit any but the elite. To get political cover therefore for its operation in this notoriously unstable country, the lead oil company in Chad, Exxon Mobile, persuaded the World Bank to come on board. The World Bank agreed to fund a pipeline to carry the oil from Chad through Cameroon to the Atlantic. In return, Chad's government agreed that a proportion of the oil revenue would be put aside for economic and social development and poverty reduction.
The oil started to flow in 2003. But last year the Chadian regime started to come under political pressure. Oil revenues were massively increasing the stakes of power. The war in neighboring Darfur, Sudan was spilling over the border. Chad's regime needed cash to buy guns and political loyalty. Predictably, the government has now reneged on the deal with the World Bank, enacting laws that effectively cancel the arrangement. And if Exxon Mobile pulls out, China is waiting to step in.
The second non-African problem Africa could do without is the West's "war on terrorism." Increasingly since 9/11, the entire predominantly Muslim belt running from the Horn of Africa through
There is, of course, solid evidence of Al Qaeda activity in Sub-Saharan Africa. The worst pre-9/11 Al Qaeda attack on the
At first it looked as though such an approach might be adopted: 9/11 certainly helped to focus U.S. and British diplomatic minds on the task of achieving peace in Sudan. But increasingly it looks as though the strategy is being narrowly focused on security and intelligence gathering: for example the establishment of bases and launch pads for counter-terrorist strikes, and the provision of political support, military training, equipment and arms to cooperative local regimes whose territory is considered vulnerable to terrorist penetration.
This could prove to be as counter-productive in Africa, as it has been in the Middle East, alienating and radicalizing local Muslims and exacerbating or creating the problem it is supposed to address. Throughout the region, loyalty and cooperation in the war on terrorism are increasingly important criteria for western political and economic support, allowing recipients of such support to evade scrutiny on issues of corruption, poverty reduction, political freedom, human rights, conflict, etc. African political entrepreneurs have been quick to exploit western sensitivities with regard to the "terrorist" threat in order to further their own vested political and economic interests.
For example, the Islamist regime in Khartoum enjoys political favors and access in Washington on account of its considerable intelligence on Al Qaeda, even though it stands accused by the
Not much was said about the impacts on Africa of oil and the war on terrorism during the G8 discussions on
This is a pity. Putting Africa right involves not just money, but getting Africa right: understanding how Africa works and why, and designing smart strategies that address Africa's diverse, difficult and often messy politics. It also involves a better appreciation not of how Africa affects the rest of the world (real answer: not very much), but of how the behavior of the rest of the world affects Africa.
Copyright © 2006 Tom Porteous / Agence Global