Hot air of change in Africa: John Major has called for the prevention of wars through diplomacy. But Richard Dowden doubts if this former colonial power is up to it

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JOHN MAJOR chose the joint session of the South African parliament to launch a plan of 'preventative diplo

macy' to try to pre-empt some of Africa's wars. It was a clear attempt to find some historic vision to match Harold Macmillan's 'Wind of Change' speech 34 years ago. But with five wars flaring and at least another 16 bubbling on the continent, preventative diplomacy would seem obvious. After all, humanitarian aid to Rwanda costs at least dollars 1m a day and the guesstimated cost for the US intervention in Somalia was dollars 2bn. With expenses like these, trying to prevent wars in Africa looks very like common sense.

Mr Major suggested to his South African hosts that Britain should take a leading role in such a project. 'I believe,' he said, 'that an entirely new effort at preventative diplomacy is long overdue. With our friends in Africa, and with their agreement and participation, Britain wants to develop new mechanisms to head off conflicts before they become unstoppable.'

But is Britain best placed to conduct this diplomacy? In one way it is. Britain once ruled more of Africa than any other foreign power and more African countries have stronger links with Britain than with any other country. 'Why aren't the British doing something here? They understand this country better than anyone,' is a common refrain in many wrecked African countries today.

It is not a feeling that is reciprocated. Britain has shown less and less interest in Africa in recent years. It is not just the formal trade and investment links with Africa that have declined. The vital personal links are also being weakened by Britain. It is far harder for Africans to get visas to come to Britain and extremely difficult for anyone from Africa to find grants to study here.

Britain now has 24 embassies and high commissions in sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn. Five closed in 1991 as part of Foreign Office cuts. The existing posts support about 270 diplomatic staff, 20 per cent less than 10 years ago.

In the end, the number of diplomats perhaps matters less than the style of diplomacy - which has until recently been 'quiet' rather than preventative. 'The Government knows our views,' is the phrase one hears from British diplomats from Lagos to Addis Ababa to Cape Town. Public statements are rare and muted.

The other thrust of policy - if such it can be called - has been to 'await developments'. It is a supine, watching style of diplomacy. It is based on the complacent view that whoever ends up on top in any particular country will need Britain more than Britain needs them, so even if London backs the wrong horse now, the eventual winner will be in no position to shun or punish Britain.

South Africa is a prime example. For years the African National Congress and its supporters screamed at Britain for propping up apartheid by blocking international sanctions. Now President Nelson Mandela now has nothing but praise for Britain's role.

There is also a fear in the Foreign Office that, as the former colonial power, Britain is badly placed to intervene in disputes. It is true that the Muslim northern Sudanese tend to believe that Britain is always plotting to make southern Sudan an independent state. There are suspicions in Somalia, too, that Britain backs the separatist Somaliland Republic. Britain could not play honest broker in these areas. But these are the exceptions.

More often there is a feeling that Britain has a historical understanding of the problems and should be helping to arbitrate them. In other words, Britain helped to create the mess by drawing the boundaries and setting up the nation states, and has some responsibility for sorting it out.

Britain has increasingly evaded this responsibility and appears to be walking away from Africa. The last generation of colonial administrators absorbed into the Foreign Office at independence has gone, so there are fewer diplomats with personal knowledge of Africa. Not many young diplomats apply to go to Africa as their first choice; it no longer attracts the brightest and the best. And increasingly Britain seeks to hide behind a European Union position in Africa, even with regard to countries that have strong links with London and none with Brussels.

France, in contrast, has maintained its interests. Paris may be cynically self-serving at times, but it is not afraid to have a policy in Africa or to pursue it publicly and vigorously. It maintains 35 embassies in sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn and its diplomats are proactive, pushing a line, creating a


Britain's undertook its first venture in preventative diplomacy in Africa last month when Baroness Chalker climbed out of a small, twin-engined Beachcraft at Bujumbura in Burundi. She and her staff of four spent a day there in non-stop meetings with the country's leaders, trying to encourage them towards a political settlement which would stop Burundi going the way of its neighbour, Rwanda. She had met none of them before and she had neither carrots nor sticks in her bag. She was relying on her experience of Africa, her status as the longest serving aid minister in the Western world and sheer force of personality.

There is still no agreement in Bujumbura, but at least it was a start. In boundary wars, such as the dispute bewteen Cameroon and Nigeria - both countries with British connections - London has done little. In wars against tyrannies, such as in Ethiopia, it sat on the sidelines accepting the status quo - some would say that in South Africa it actually supported the status quo. In secessionist struggles it remains neutral.

And Britain has shown little interest in stopping the rise of the military in Africa from Idi Amin in Uganda in 1971 to the overthrow of Sir Dawda Jawara in Gambia in July.

In Angola during the election two years ago and its aftermath, the British ambassador played a direct and courageous role in trying to stop civil war breaking out, but it was a personal, impromptu one. There was no follow-up from London. British diplomats are not encouraged to be up there with the journalists and the aid workers on the front line.

If Britain is to launch an initiative in preventative diplomacy in Africa it will have to become far more committed and involved. There must be more diplomats on the ground and they must get closer to the action.

In the 19th century the flag followed the cross into Africa. In recent years it has been a case of the the flag following the camera and the journalist's notebook - governments become involved in crises only when they are publicised by the media. If they really want to engage in preventative diplomacy, they will have to get there before the cameras.

(Photograph omitted)