Socrates’ bash, let Mugabe bashing begin

Jose Socrates has done well to host the Afro-European get-together, after all it was his ancestors who pioneered the spirit of European adventurism across the seas which resulted in conquests of other peoples and the resultant colonialism.

But the party, as expected, has turned into a contest of who can outdo the rest in saying not so nice things about one Robert Mugabe. You’ve got to give it to this aging dictator for showing up knowing quite clearly that he was going to be welcomed not with polite kisses and back rubs but with vitriol.

And so today the bashing bagan with the German chancellor, and a lot more is to follow. It will be interesting to see which African leaders take the cue and say bad things about their brother Mr. Rob – although almost none of them, the possible exceptions being Festus Mogae and Navin Ramgoolam, has any moral authority to do so.

It is sad that the summit, or may be it’s just the media attention, has ended up not concentrating on issues of economic development and free trade which are most important to most Africans (to whom Darfur and Zimbabwe, by the way, are just as distant as they are to Venezuelans) but on the crises on the continent. The AU should have known better than to allow the two social misfits from Khartoum and Harare to attend the bash and hog all the attention because of their bad habits.

the rising cost of food, can africa cope?

This week’s economist newspaper has a piece on the issue of “agflation” – the recent upsurge in global food prices. The rise in food prices should be a wake up call to least developed countries whose populations mostly depend on food aid to keep body and soul together.

The fact of the matter is that as food prices rise, the cost of sending food aid will go up and if the donors who distribute this food do not get additional funding they may have to cut their budgets – meaning more poor people in the world will have to die of undernutrition related deaths.

But can this be avoided? The answer to this question, I can dare say with “high confidence,” is a simple yes, and here is why.

Ideally, rising food prices should be good news for countries who still consider agriculture  to be the backbone of their economies. (mostly in Africa and the rest of the global south) What this means is that these countries will have a chance to earn more forex from their exports of wheat, maize and what not. But this is not the case. Most of these agri-economies are net food importers because their arable land potential is not being maximised. This is largely due to poor farming practices in the underdeveloped countries and food subsidies in the global north that make farming not so attractive to entrepreneurs.

The WTO, among other such international institutions, has failed to resolve this adverse state of affairs but it is my hope that may be now that prices have gone up Washington and Brussels will finally cut off their subsidy-addicted farmers and let Adam Smith’s invisible hand do its work in determining returns on agriculture and thus give global southerners a fairer chance. At the same time, governments of the underdeveloped agri-economies should strive to be food sufficient – like Malawi has recently done, without much help from outside.

global warming, africa cannot afford passivism

Climate change is increasingly becoming an issue in African states as more and more of them get exposed to the effects of global warming – the glaciers are disappearing from the top of Mt. Kirinyaga (Mt. Kenya) and Mt. Kilimanjaro and the sea level off Africa’s coasts continues to rise. On this issue, African countries like most developing countries, find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand there is a need to cut green house gas emissions in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences that will befall the planet, but on the other hand these same countries need to industrialise using cheap means that may not necessarily be green. Green technology in its current rudimentary state simply cannot power industries.

Global warming is real, but at the same time it would be morally unacceptable to continue delaying poor countries’ development by forcing them to go green in this stage of their economic development. For instance countries in Africa contribute only 2.5% of the total global green house gas emissions. Currently green energy is expensive and cannot be used in an industrial scale. This does not give poor countries a carte blanche to pollute as much as they want as they continue to industrialise. Industrialisation should go on under strict regulation in order to keep the pollution levels to a minimum.

Africa also needs to seriously plan for the consequences of having a warmer planet. Some countries like Niger and the Central African Republic have made great strides in trying to stop the spread of the Sahara by having successful tree growing programmes even with their rather meagre resources. The AU should learn from these two countries and take up a leading role in campaigning for a green (or just about as green as can be done) industrial revolution on the continent, devoid of the wastefulness that continues to characterize modern living in cities around the world. The Kofi Anan headed Alliance for Green Revolution, I believe, is a step in the right direction and will play a vital role in providing food security for the continent’s peoples when the going gets tough due to global warming induced famines.

Climate change is a global problem and needs to be tackled through a coordinated effort by all players – underdeveloped and developed alike. Indeed it is the developing countries that should be most voluble in this campaign because as the earth warms up and the frequency of droughts increase, the hardest hit will not be the owners fossil energy guzzlers in the developed countries but hapless farmers somewhere in the global south countryside who have never owned a motor car or a CFC emitting gadget.

the AU – EU summit, focusing on the essentials

Following the Berlin conference circa 1884-5, Europe has always felt obligated to care about matters African – be it during the colonial period or in the post colonial era. This historical accident resulted in an Afro-European relationship that has mostly been characterised by tension and mistrust.

But things are changing. These days the two peoples talk of a “constructive engagement” and a cessation of paternalistic lecturing by the (former) colonialists. Although some leaders of Europe still suffer from what a Zimbabwean daily calls “an apparently incurable colonial master hangover,” most of them have moved on and come to see African countries as sovereignties that deserve to be treated with respect.

It is under this new arrangement that the EU-AU summit is being held in Lisbon, Portugal. Although the summit has been marred by a lot of controversy – from Mugabe’s attendance to Brown being accused of sending a junior cabinet member to the summit simply because she is black – it still has potential to provide the framework for a more productive relationship between the two continents based on trade and exchange of ideas.

Brussels has realised that its aid to Africa – sometimes due to guilt, but mostly because of humanitarian concern – is not sustainable in the long run. It has dawned on the EU that investment in African economies and allowing freer trade is the only way that is going to alleviate poverty in Africa and make the EU competitive against the Chinese and the Americans who have significantly increased their respective trade involvements with Africa over the last few years.

My hope is that the summit will focus on trade (making it fairer and easier) and good governance. With regard to trade, the EU should commit to reducing all non-tariff barriers to trade with the continent – from the controversial agricultural subsidies to the rather tasteless “place of origin” labels insisted upon by some pesky pressure groups. On matters to do with government, Brussels (and especially Sarkozy’s men) should send a clear message that they will not prop up leaders who do nothing but steal from and oppress their people. They should do this openly and explicitly. Previously, Europe has shied away from direct criticism in fear of the African leaders playing the race and neo-colonialism cards. But these sorts of Africans are a tiny left over of the immediate post-colonial period. Majority of Africans would welcome such criticism and even offer support it if indeed it is good natured rectitude.

So on the whole, the success of the Lisbon Summit will depend on the attending leaders’ commitment to addressing the issues that are most relevant to the average farmer in the African countryside: fair trade and good governance.