Saturday, 12 February 2011

'Interesting Times' In Africa

Egypt is in the news at the moment (so much so that I'll leave it to last, otherwise things will have already changed there by the time I finish). Over the past few months there have been several ongoing stories about African nations which are somewhat different from what has gone before, and which look likely to have long-term implications for much of the continent.

Sudan is currently the largest country in Africa. It is one of those countries created as a result of the carve-up of Africa by 19th-century colonial powers, whose borders bear little relation to the reality on the ground. In terms of geography, language, ethnicity, religion, wealth, health, you name it, northern and southern Sudan are distinctly different (not to mention various east-west divisions). After thirty years of civil war a peace agreement in 2005 gave the southerners a referendum, which was held early this year. The official results aren't out yet, but are known to be an overwhelming vote for secession; the new state is due to be formally created on July 9th, 2011. One possible complication is the tiny border region of Abyei, which has its own vote over whether to join the north or the south; as an ethnically mixed region this is going to cause problems.

The new country is certain to have many difficulties when it comes into being - poverty, oil, ethnic divisions, and a lot of guns all create problems. On a more individual level, there will be many families who will be moving from one side of the border to the other, and doubtless ethnically mixed families will face even greater prejudice and pressure, at least for a while. But the continent-wide issue arises from the simple fact that this will (hopefully) have been a successful secession: one section of an established African country will have split off to form a new country. However logical this move may be for Sudan, and however extreme a case the old Sudan was, this will encourage separatist movements across the continent. In ending this one civil war, there is a risk of provoking or exacerbating many others.

In Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) things have not been going so well. Another civil war was supposed to be ended with presidential elections last November. Except that the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, lost but refuses to stand down ... and has the army backing him. Nothing new there in African politics, but this time it has played out differently. The other West African nations, even (for a time) the African Union, got together to tell him to go. He didn't go, and some African leaders are getting a bit iffy about pushing him, but it remains a standoff in which other African states may be the deciding factor in forcing an ex-president to stand down. This would set an important precedent, and give hope to many African nations suffering under 'strong-man' rulers who stay in power through thugs and militias, rather than the ballot box. If Gbagbo goes under African pressure then maybe things really can change for the better across the continent.

I can't write about Cote d'Ivoire without mentioning chocolate, of course. Most mass-produced chocolate uses cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire, money from which goes to pay Gbagbo's army. The big exception is Cadburys (except in the US, where I'm told 'Cadburys' is just rebranded Hersheys); fair trade chocolate and many specialist chocolates also use higher quality cocoa from elsewhere. So your chocolate consumption may be making a small difference to the future direction of Africa.

Which brings us to Tunisia and Egypt. Very strange situations: long-term dictatorships overthrown by demonstrations which were not organised by any opposition party, or indeed by anybody much. Just tens of thousands of, mostly young, ordinary people going out on the streets to tell their government that they had had enough.

In Tunisia they won, at least for now. President Ben Ali, after 23 years in power, fled to Saudi Arabia. The rest of the regime attempted to cling on to their power, by setting up a supposed 'unity' government in which the RCD (Ben Ali's party) held the key ministries: defence, interior, finance and foreign - ie controlling the army, the police, the money, and relations with the rest of the world. Not an encouraging sign that they planned to break with the past. But continued demonstrations forced a change; now Tunisians must wait to see whether their 'jasmine revolution' will indeed bring democracy, freedom, and economic strength.

In Egypt the game goes on. Egypt is much bigger than Tunisia, and Mubarak's hold on power seemed much stronger, but when the people went out onto the streets the army refused to attack them openly (although behind the scenes arrests and torture went on). Yesterday (February 11th) Mubarak finally went: hundreds had been killed, vague promises and threats had been  made, but the protests just continued to grow. Crucially, younger members of the army are said to have sympathised with the protesters, whilst the old guard supported the regime, so the army remained relatively neutral.

Now we have the country being run by a committee headed by an army 'old guard' - Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Minister of Defence since 1991 and general commander of the armed forces since 1995. Strangely, western observers seem more cynical about this than Arab ones.

One remarkable feature of the Egyptian protests has been the way protesters have organised themselves, and have worked together. Telling images have involved them setting up their own management of people coming into Tahrir Square, and of them working together to protect one another: Christians standing guard during Muslim prayers and vice versa. Tyranny thrives on division: in much of Africa the tyrants thrive on ethnic differences and disagreements; in Arab countries it tends to be religious differences that they can use: fear of Islamists, hatred of other flavours of Islam, divisions between Muslim and Christian. To see the Egyptian people show that by working together they can defeat tyranny is an inspiring sight.

Another remarkable feature has been the western governments' dithering, way behind the curve of what's actually happening. The Obama administration, particularly Hilary Clinton, was busy backing Mubarak as a stable ally, then Omar Suleiman (Mubarak's right-hand man, and head of intelligence - known as 'the CIA's man in Cairo') was supposed to be the great hope for democracy. Finally Obama caught up that Egyptians actually wanted the sort of democracy where Egyptian people have some say in what goes on and where emergency rule and police crackdowns and torture aren't part of everday life. Even now the US look to be wanting to back the army old guard, apparently hoping that democratic aspirations can be kept to a minimum.

Nobody knows whether other North African (or indeed other Arab) states are vulnerable to these sorts of protests. Autocratic leaders are hurriedly making promises and rearranging governments, but Algeria, Morroco and Sudan seem potentially vulnerable. There seems to be some consensus that the critical point is whether the head of state is genuinely respected, or merely hated and feared. In a police state you can't really know that until the protests start, though, and by then it's too late.

So, interesting times indeed for Africa. Events occuring which seem genuinely different from what has been before. Whether this will end up as a blessing or a curse is yet to be seen; mostly that lies in the hands of the African people, in all their amazing diversity.

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