Richard Dowden: I hate to spoil the party, but our approach to Africa is riddled with contradictions

None of Blair's staff knew what he President of Malawi looked like, so he was left to find his own seat
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Politics has been put in a box marked "governance", that dignified word meaning everything from presidential elections to pencil sharpeners in local government offices. Corruption is in there, so is capacity to deliver services and these have been delicately picked over in the Africa Commission report. But politics and the brutal question "Who is to be Master?" are not.

And sure enough, on the eve of what could be a successful G8 summit, African politics - in the form of Robert Mugabe and Africa's failure to sanction him - is going to spoil the party.

Politics has been the prime cause of Africa's failure - and only African politics will produce the solutions. In Africa, all politics are local and personal, rarely about ideas or principles. I am not saying we outsiders are therefore absolved of any responsibility for Africa's plight. On the contrary, as the powers that created Africa's states, kept dictators in power during the Cold War, and impose conditions on African governments today, Europe and America are deeply bound up in African politics.

You cannot help Africa unless you understand it, but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have actually diminished Britain's ability to understand the workings of this mysterious continent. They have put a vast amount of energy into pushing Africa to the top of the international agenda at the G8 summit and in the European Union. They have boosted Britain's aid to Africa, encouraged others to do the same and achieved a deal on some of Africa's debts. With luck the G8 will make upbeat noises about the need to set a date for the abolition of export subsidies on food. At the moment, cheap subsidised food from rich countries is dumped on African markets, undermining local producers.

But the future of Africa will not be decided at Gleneagles, nor in Brussels or Washington. It will be decided in Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Abuja, Abidjan and all the other African capitals. British representation in Africa, however, is diminishing. The Foreign Office is about to close three missions in Africa: the high commissions in Lesotho and Swaziland, and the embassy in Madagascar. The former are both small, landlocked countries that owe their existence to their historical connections to Britain and today desperately need links to the wider world.

Swaziland, suffering under the rule of a mad public school-educated monarch, in particular needs a strong diplomatic presence. Madagascar is larger and more populous than all the other countries where British embassies have recently closed combined. Furthermore, its politics seem to have come right at last. It is an African success story. As a result four other countries have decided to open missions there. Britain is walking away.

In this year when Britain is putting Africa at the top of the agenda, the Foreign Office will lose three of its top Africanists, two to early retirement. One of them, Ann Grant, has served as head of Africa Department and High Commissioner in South Africa and is Britain's most experienced Africa diplomat. She has retired early and gone to work for a bank.

The Foreign Office has also lost its country desk officers, the builders of institutional memory and the contact point for businesses, NGOs and diaspora groups wishing to engage the government in discussion about their own countries - something Blair is said to be keen to promote. British-based Ugandan or Ghanaian groups are now unable to talk to the Foreign Office about problems back home.

African leaders watch us far more closely than we watch them and they know our politics well. Personal connections are all important in African politics. For example, it is important to know that in country X the second most important man after the president is actually the deputy minister of water, because his mother is a sister of the president's mother. But getting to know how Africa works seems unimportant to our leaders. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown launched the Africa Commission report in March the President of Malawi turned up. No one of the Prime Minister's staff knew what he looked like and he was left to find his own seat in the audience until rescued by British Museum staff.

Africa has been handed over to the Department for International Development. The signal that sends to Africa is that Britain treats Africa as a mere recipient of aid, not to be respected as an equal. Dfid has huge resources and a guaranteed yearly increase in budget. It also wields the British vote at the two most powerful organisations in the developing world: the IMF and the World Bank.

But it also means that British missions in Africa are no longer led by people whose prime job is to watch, analyse and interpret. Britain is now represented by officials primarily concerned with pushing aid into these countries: experts in development, health, education, but with little or no understanding of the history and politics of the country. It is the equivalent of picking a football team of experts on cricket who have never actually kicked a ball.

No better indication of the lack of a coherent Africa policy is the appointment of no fewer than five Africa ministers in the eightyears of this government. In 2003, Blair was about to abolish the post altogether when Baroness Amos went to run Dfid after Clare Short resigned. Instead he gave it to Chris Mullin, who was sacked this year and replaced by Lord Treisman. He will no doubt, like the rest of the British government, be putting Africa at the top of his agenda this year. After, that is, dealing with all his other responsibilities: Latin America, the Caribbean, Overseas Territories, the Commonwealth, UK visas, migration policy, consular policy, the British Council, the BBC World Service and the Chevening Scholarships Scheme. He has, needless to say, no previous African experience.

Why, in this Year of Africa, are we not seeing the appointment of a Minister for Africa whose full time job is to get to grips with the politics of the continent? He should have a cross-departmental role, co-ordinating British policy and follow through the implementation of the report of the Commission for Africa and the decisions of the G8.

That at least might avoid grotesque contradictions, such as Jack Straw denouncing the evil Harare regime while the Home Office deports failed Zimbabwean asylum-seekers telling them it is safe to go home.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society