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Stepping stones, quagmires and capacity

By Stephen Chan
Posted on Thursday, 10 April 2014 15:45

Faced with desertions from his party at the senate and state governor level, along with an ‘Islamist’ insurrection that is partly fanned by non-Islamist agendas – as party and other political barons use atrocious proxies to jostle for position and power – President Goodluck Jonathan responded to the world’s concern by suspending Nigeria’s internationally respected and celebrated central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, for whistle-blowing on $20bn of missing oil revenue in February.

Sanusi asked the key questions rather than pointing fingers, but the sums involved were massive. Jonathan, in suspending Sanusi – probably unconstitutionally – did not even try to counter the claims or to assure his remaining constituency that he was tackling the problem of corruption.

Obama will not invite Mugabe, but the remaining African presidents will turn up

The Sanusi case demonstrates that the problem in Africa is not one of capacity. There is an entire industry, emanating from donor countries, of ‘capacity building.’ The capacity is there. Governor Sanusi could govern the Bank of England just as well as Canada’s Mark Carney, who is currently doing the job.

The problem in Africa is a political refusal to deploy that capacity or to sack it when it embarrasses the political class. In Jonathan’s case, there is also the need to anchor such support as he can still command. He needs the security sector and the oligarchs to stay onside.

Russia the missing summiteer

Nigeria will be high on the list as the season of great summit meetings with African leaders gets under way. Almost all the great powers are in the mix. The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) seek to impress upon Africa the value of their political systems and principles, and the Chinese seek to convince Africa that they will impose no system or values.

The missing summiteer is Russia, where ‘ordered democracy’ based on oligarchic allegiance and security command establishes the model most likely to
appeal to presidents from Robert Mugabe to Goodluck Jonathan.

The spectacle of parliamentary opposition as a delightful cosmetic would be even more appealing than it is – if only something as simple as a bunch of bare-breasted and skinny girls wearing balaclavas and singing punk protest songs did not throw the authorities into a paroxysm of panic.

There is no Pussy Riot in Africa. And, thankfully, African presidents do not have plutonium for the most stubborn opposition leaders.

Yet the sense of finally being in a driving seat of sorts emboldened the African Union (AU) to insist that the EU-Africa summit had to include President Mugabe. No Mugabe, no one else at all.

The tetchy response from United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister David Cameron was to agree to Mugabe’s participation but also to insist that the lifting of almost all remaining EU sanctions on Zimbabwe would not include the removal of those on Mugabe himself.

This was both a continuation of the personalised dispute between the UK and Zimbabwe and also perverse: sanctions were lifted from Zimbabwe’s military oligarchs, such as Perence Shiri, who commanded the Fifth Brigade held responsible for some 20,000 deaths in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

Mugabe did not go to the EU-Africa summit in April, after his wife, Grace was denied the permission to attend the meeting. He will not go to the belated summit called by US President Barack Obama. He has been pointedly excluded from that.

The first black US president has underplayed Africa so extensively that no one would have noticed if he had never called the 5-6 August summit at all – and there is a sense of ‘if I must’ about it all.

But Obama and the US command far more economic and political power than Europe. He will not invite Mugabe, but the remaining African presidents will turn up.

As for China, its efforts to court Africa have been extraordinary. Not only did it host the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation high-level meeting in 2013, but President Xi Jinping visited three African countries in the same year – continuing the hands-on and face-to-face diplomacy of his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Discriminating diplomacy

China has also been assiduously courting its colleagues in the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – group of emerging economies.

And there is a sense that China needs Africa almost as desperately as Africa needs China – not only for its aid and purchasing power but for the leverage China gives when Africa deals with the US and EU.

So African high-level diplomacy has become discriminating – able to set some terms with Europe and doing so, unable to set terms with the US and knowing so, and able to engage at least superficially on equal terms with China.

The terms are not always equal. A recent platinum deal between Namibia and China, pushed through at Namibian presidential insistence, could probably have been negotiated with more advantage to Namibia.

Curiously, Angola, for all its familial oligarchic centralisation, has learnt to negotiate against the Chinese and secure better results. So even authoritarian presidents can do this if they use wisely the capacity at their command.

The trick is to deploy exactly that technocratic capacity in each country.

Thankfully, there is a limit to the damage presidents can do in brief summits. Not even a Chinese or an American president can con over 50 leaders – with or without Mugabe – in the space of a few days with much time given over for photo calls and banquets.

The real test of these summits begins with the calibre of teams the African presidents take with them. Insofar as they are joyrides for courtiers, there is still much to learn.

But at the EU/AU summit, how many African presidents brought their best technocrats who can unpick clause by clause the European Common Agricultural Policy that has militated against a fair deal for African farmers?

In 2014, Russia is the key non-summiteer. This may be just as well. Most African presidents have lived the soft life for far too long to endure President Vladimir Putin’s penchant for extreme sports and chest baring. But there are other non-Russian models of ordered, ‘orderly’ and authoritarian democracy.

Malaysia is the key example, and another would be Singapore. In those countries, technocratic capacity is valued and used. And there is national wealth because there is less personal corruption.

In Malaysia, someone like Sanusi would have been valued. But then there has been no prime minister in Malaysian history who would have allowed $20bn to have been stolen from under his nose.

At the summits of 2014 it will be interesting to see who gets the time of day, who gets only politely received and who gets snickered at behind the scenes. ●

Stephen Chan – Professor of international relations, School of Oriental and African Studies, UK

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