Richard Dowden: Riots, starvation and a coup. Whatever happened to those G8 promises on Africa?

Until Africa gets leaders that are accountable to their own people, nothing much will change


Events since then suggest that not much has changed. In the past month, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe ordered the destruction of shanty towns, making some 700,000 people homeless. Despite an exceedingly critical report commissioned by the United Nations, the removals continued. Fellow African leaders will ensure the matter does not reach the UN Security Council. The Malawi government also said that it will destroy illegal houses in cities, and it is making no provision for rehousing the people. This week, Mugabe announced that he will not hold talks with his political opponents.

In Sudan, 130 people died in riots after Colonel John Garang, vice-president and leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, was killed in a helicopter crash. His death puts in jeopardy the deal to end the 50-year civil war between north and south. The civil war in Darfur to the west still continues.

In Mauritania, a coup overthrew the elected president. It is the first coup in Africa since 2003 and, despite condemnation by the African Union, it looks as if it may succeed. In Nigeria, a national conference on the political future of the country collapsed when its oil-producing states demanded 25 per cent of oil revenues (at present they get 13 per cent). Had the conference reached agreement the constitution could have been changed peacefully.

In Niger, children are dying of hunger and 3.6 million people are affected by food shortages. Warnings and appeals for food were issued as far back as last November. More came in January and May. Answer from the rest of the world came there none. Nor did the victims' president, Mamadou Tanja, seem to care. He did not bother to visit the affected areas until after the BBC pictures emerged. Yesterday the president said: "The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see." He even attacked the UN agencies and his political opponents for exploiting the idea of a famine for political and economic gain.

Niger seemed particularly shocking in a year when Africa was top of the G8 agenda. Bob Geldof had been rampaging around Africa making TV programmes and organising the greatest rock concert in the history of the planet for Africa. How could such a thing happen with him and Bono focusing the world's attention on Africa?

The events of the past month seem to confirm the pessimists who say there is nothing you can do about Africa. I would not be surprised to learn that Blair and Gordon Brown feel they have done what they could and have now moved on to somewhere more rewarding. The problem was that expectations were too high.

The underlying message of the aid agencies and their celebrity supporters in the lead-up to the G8 was that those eight men in suits could save Africa from poverty and misery. All they had to do was give more aid - the cost of half a stick of chewing gum a day per person, said Bob Geldof - drop the debt and abolish agricultural subsidies. Three quick decisions. Just do it. So simple.

Too simple. Africa is a complicated place. The reasons for its economic failure do not lie primarily in the world trading system, in Africa's debt burdens and certainly not in lack of aid. What we do or don't do are secondary causes. The primary cause is political, and the roots of African politics lie in history, in which Western countries, particularly Britain and France, are deeply involved. But Blair and the aid agencies chose to play down the history and the politics and present the problem as simply financial and logistical - "Just give them the effing money," as Geldof so eloquently and wrongly put it.

In all of the depressing events that have happened in Africa since the G8 summit, the responsibility has not primarily been disease or drought or poverty. Human and political actions have been key. In Sudan, Garang died in what seems to have been an accident but the human factor was that he did not allow a successor to emerge, so he leaves behind a dangerous vacuum. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe could not bear even the potential threat of political opposition among the urban poor so he kicked them out into rural poverty. In Mauritania, a general thought he could rule better than an elected government. In Niger, hunger may have been caused by drought and locusts but starvation could have been staved off if the president had taken the famine seriously. Instead he seems embarrassed by it, afraid it might damage his country's image.

Yes others are to blame too - the UN in Niger, for example, for not pushing harder for the funding essential for food aid. Donor governments for ignoring the requests. But the principal conclusion must be that until Africa gets leaders that are accountable to their own people and put their peoples' interests first, nothing much will change on the continent. That is the process we need to work on. Africa does not need a macro grand plan, it needs hard work on the hundreds of complicated micro systems that allow - or prevent - its development.

As the Prime Minister and the officials who had been working on Africa left for a summer break there seemed to be no clear plan to carry the G8 agenda forward. Let's hope the energy expended on reaching the summit in July will not have been dissipated when they return. The British government - still chair of the G8 and president of the EU till the end of the year - must keep the momentum going in the rest of the world. The crucial summit on trade - vital to Africa's long-term ability to earn its own living - takes place in Hong Kong in December.

Britain also has much work of its own to do. At the launch of the Commission for Africa report, Blair declared it to be British policy and promised to implement its 78-or-so recommendations. They range from signing-up to the UN Convention on Corruption to registering arms dealers and supporting African universities. It also needs to strengthen its political engagement with Africa to gain a better understanding of the people it is trying to help.

If by the end of the year Blair can get the Russians to give Africa a decent slot at next year's G8 and persuade its European partners to be generous at Hong Kong and give African countries fairer trading agreements, the year of Africa can be counted a success. But don't hold your breath. The fruits of that success may take a decade or even two to ripen.

The writer is Director of the Royal African Society

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