In DepthColumnsPower show of Cold War proportions


Posted on Wednesday, 29 May 2013 16:54

Power show of Cold War proportions

Patrick Smith

Those doughty chief commanders fighting against international jihadism – Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Chad's President Idriss Déby – are reaping political rewards for their military commitments. Britain and France's embrace of governments fighting jihadists looks increasingly like a cynical replay of Cold War alignments, with disastrous consequences for political freedoms.


In mid-May, President Kenyatta arrived in London to attend a conference on Somalia and meet Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron.

This was the same Prime Minister Cameron whose government said it would abjure all 'non-essential' contact with Kenyatta and deputy president William Ruto because they face charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of orchestrating mass killlings after the 2007 elections in Kenya.

It took just four weeks for the Kenyatta and Cameron governments to reach an accommodation on the new political order. It would be ludicrous, said Whitehall officials, if Kenya were not represented at the Somalia conference.

Kenya provides some 5,000 troops to the African Union force in Somalia and cooperates with Britain on several counter-terrorism missions along the Indian Ocean seaboard. Nairobi said it made it clear that President Kenyatta, not the foreign minister, must be on the London guest list.

Britain and France's embrace of governments fighting jihadists looks increasingly like a replay of Cold War alignments, with disastrous consequences for political freedoms

Kenyatta's spin doctors weighed in. Cameron had "hailed the strong historical ties that Kenya and the United Kingdom have continued to enjoy," reported Nairobi's presidential press service. Indeed, Cameron had "underlined the commitment of the British government to strengthen the relations yet further," it added. Then with a wink, it referred to Cameron's interest in "enhancing trade and investment between the two countries".

Whitehall was far less effusive, stating that Cameron had met Kenyatta on the margins of the Somalia conference. When pressed, British officials conceded the discussion had touched on the importance of maintaining good relations.

This London encounter does not preclude the much-predicted diplomatic train crash when the respective trials of Kenyatta and Ruto start at the ICC this year, but it has shown how Nairobi can use its leverage.

The ICC trials could drag on for another three years or more, perhaps into Kenya's next election season. Doubtless Britain will assiduously follow the sub judice rule by not commenting about ongoing court cases.

Rights activists in Kenya are disappointed by Britain's silence about the growing pressures that the Kenyatta-Ruto government is putting on civil society. These are set to grow with new laws planned to limit foreign funding for civic groups.

Groups led by such activists as Maina Kiai and Gladwell Otieno, who strongly questioned the credibility of Kenyatta's election, depend largely on foreign philanthropic finance. Will any Kenyan businesspeople step into the breach and finance genuinely independent civic groups?

Developments in Chad are starker still. In the same week in mid-May that France's President François Hollande lavished praise on Chad's President Déby for the country's valuable assistance to French troops fighting jihadists in northern Mali, a crackdown was underway in N'Djamena.

The human rights organisation the Féderation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l'Homme denounced "a wave of arrests, harassment and intimidation targeting the political opposition, journalists and civic society".

The ostensible reason for the government's repressive measures was its claimed uncovering of a coup plot. The arrests of journalists and dissidents in N'Djamena elicited a response from Hollande worthy of perfidious Albion: "The principles we have set out must be respected, and that includes Chad."

It is not clear how that fits with the Quai d'Orsay's praise for Chad's stabilising role and "involvement in the struggle against insecurity in the Sahel and the settlement of crises, notably in the Central African Republic."

Indeed, for Déby's efforts it seems that Chadian troops will join the military parade down the Champs-Elysées on 14 July, France's national day. That is if President Déby can spare enough of them from their duties policing errant journalists and activists●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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