Category Archives: Forth

Africa’s Free Trade Agreement: An empty gesture, or the next step in South Africa’s neo-colonisation of Africa?

(Courtesy of Yahoo News)

I got very excited when I read the headlines. “Africa signs deal for Free Trade Area”. “Free Trade Area Treaty Signed”. “Free Trade Deal to Boost Trade, Investment in Africa.”

The terms of the “deal” were even more exciting. Three of Africa’s largest and most efficient trading blocs (SADC, COMESA and the EAC), comprising 26 countries, more than half a billion people, and a little shy of a combined GDP of a trillion dollars (US, not Zimbabwean), were to merge, eliminating tariffs, quotas and preferences on goods traded between them.

This would be a huge step in the economic development of Africa. Trade within Africa is notoriously low (only about 10% of Africa’s trade is with itself, as compared to 60% in Europe), and beset with all sorts of difficulties – most notably high tariffs on goods and very poor infrastructure.  By removing some of these obstacles, it makes it easier to trade, encouraging the development of a manufacturing sector and creating jobs.

But read the fine print, and its becomes clear that the agreement is not to establish a Free Trade Area but merely to talk about establishing a Free Trade Area. It is an agreement to negotiate, and South Africa’s Trade Minister Rob Davies doesn’t expect any progress for three years, saying that even though the heads of state “thought an inordinate amount of time was needed to do this, they still allocated 36 months to do so.”

The negotiations are being spearheaded by South Africa – the agreement was signed in Johannesburg and presided over by Jacob Zuma. While a Free Trade Area is hugely important for Africa’s development, the rest of the continent needs to be wary that South Africa doesn’t use its huge clout to create provisions that favour its own development rather than Africa’s. After all, South Africa has the most to gain with any free trade agreement because it’s able to take immediate advantage. I have a horrible suspicion that if substantive negotiations take place, and a real agreement signed, it will represent of triumph of South Africa’s neo-colonial foreign policy (the policy that is filling the continent with Shoprites and Nandos the way America filled with world with McDonalds and Coca-Cola) rather than a a genuine attempt at African economic reform. Not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. And, I’d take Nandos over McDonalds every day of the week.

It will be interesting to see if there will be parallel negotiations on free movement of people, a much more delicate topic, and something South Africa, with its domestic problems around xenophobia, will be less in favour of.

VERDICT: The African Free Trade Area goes forth. As a first step, this is encouraging; however, until we hear something more concrete it remains mere PR.

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iMaverick: the beginning of an African media revolution?

There’d been rumours swirling for weeks; Branko Brkic and the team at the Daily Maverick were going to announce something big on Wednesday. And, true to the hype, they did; the creation of Africa’s first ever tablet-only newspaper, iMaverick (specifically for the iPad, but available too on Android and other devices). This was not the revolutionary bit; the sting was in the tail. Subscribers would be able to get content from the daily iMaverick for the not insignificant sum of R395 ($60) per month. This did, however, include a brand spanking new iPad 2.

My first though was: genius, pure genius. No one wants to pay for content in this age of “free” information, but no one minds paying huge sums for hardware. By bundling the two together, the media outlet gets the money it needs to run a decent operation, and the subscriber gets a nice shiny toy – which doubles as a damn good device for displaying news (as well as advertising). A tablet also does away with the need for printing and distribution – the two most significant costs for any newspaper.

Also, the novelty of the idea guarantees the kind of word of mouth advertising for the new paper that no kind of money can buy.

Tablet newspapers are the future for media in Africa. It seems outlandish now, when iPads and their ilk are still novelty items owned by the very rich. But just a few years ago, cellphones were thought to be incompatible with Africa, and just look at them now. For a long time, I’ve thought that some kind of cellphone newspaper was the way forward, because it’s easy to pay for things with cellphones; I’ve never been able to figure out how that would translate into a comprehensive publication. Tablets solve that problem, with their intuitive interface and superb graphics. Especially if connected to the cellphone billing system, rather than the clunky internet versions like paypal, then tablets will become the easiest way to extract money out of consumers. This will mean that the price of the hardware will fall significantly in the next few years; rather give loads of people an iPad and extract money from them for years than get just a few people to cough up a huge sum.

Media will swiftly graduate to this option, which is so much more sustainable than the internet alternatives. Particularly African media, who will use this as a way to subvert traditional media monopolies and regulatory systems. There’ll be a load of teething problems with this, of course; but it’s a lot harder for governments to stop publication when there’s no printing press to shut down. And the huge reduction in publishing costs will mean more money that can be spent on the journalists who generate the content, thereby helping to improve the quality of news coverage on the continent.

So, iMaverick; ahead of its time, and a glimpse of the future. I just hope there are enough people who want an iPad, and can afford the still expensive monthly subscription, to keep it going until the present catches up.

DISCLAIMER: I write occasionally for the Daily Maverick, iMaverick’s sister publication.

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Ivory Coast clear as Gbagbo is captured

Counter-revolutionary chic: Gbagbo loses power, and his shirt (AFP/Getty)

And another one bites the dust. Laurent Gbagbo, who held out longer than Hosni Mubarak, longer than Ben Ali (but perhaps not longer than Gaddafi or Ali Abdullah Saleh – we shall see) was seized in his underground bunker under the presidential palace in Abidjan. Seized by who, exactly? Initial reports suggested that the French had finally lost patience and done the job themselves; subsequently all sides have been saying that only ‘Ivorian’ forces were involved, whatever that term means these days. After all, it was Gbagbo’s interpretation of the concept of  ‘Ivoirite’ that kept Ouattara out of presidential elections for a decade, on the basis that he was not fully Ivorian. And both sides in this conflict have relied on forces that would fail even the most liberal definition of Ivorian – Liberian mercenaries, Angolan mercenaries, Nigerian mercenaries…and French mercenaries?

France seized the initiative in Cote D’Ivoire, as they did in Libya; one wonders how much this has to do with Nicolas Sarkozy’s record low popularity figures. One suspects everything. Nonetheless, even if it was only ‘Ivorian’ troops that broke down the door, the column of 30 French armoured vehicles in support certainly helped.

And now the world breathes a sigh of relief; Cote D’Ivoire, it appears, is sorted, and will disappear from the headlines. But the tensions and undercurrents which caused this civil war are not resolved, and Ouattara has a tough time on his hands to reconcile what was even before this a deeply divided country. Gbagbo is being kept in the Golf hotel, which is where Ouattara established his interim government, and where he has been holed up ever since the election. Apparently the room service is not bad.

In the meantime, there’s still Gaddafi to worry about. What Gbagbo’s capture does throw into relief is the international policy of not targeting the person of Gaddafi. Perhaps a targeted assassination of one man with blood on his hands is more just than the bombing of all his footsoldiers? Maybe it’s like lancing a boil?

VERDICT: Cote D’Ivoire goes forth, 134 days too late.

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Iran’s clever waiting game as the Middle East realigns

Brilliant article from the ever-excellent MK Bhadrakumar on Asia Times Online on Iran’s role in the Middle East uprisings, particularly Bahrain. He argues that Iran is too clever to ‘walk into the trap’ of getting its hands dirty by providing any material support to the Bahraini protestors, knowing that the US and allies will be picking over the debris to find any sign of Iranian involvement, which would doubtless be used to ramp up rhetoric, or action, against Iran. Instead, they’re pursuing a far more subtle strategy which hinges on persuading the general public (the so-called ‘Arab Street’, an Orientalist term I can’t stand because it simply does not exist) that this is not a religious, Sunni-Shi’a issue, and that Saudi is defying its mandate as Custodian of the Holy Places (Mecca and Medina) by killing Muslims in a foreign country. That Iran can condemn the attacks on protesters while brazenly attacking its own protesters is of course the height of irony; but then again, foreign policy is rarely without irony.

The Middle East is being remade now, as I type; the geopolitics of the region is changing forever, and all the major players are desperately tying make sure they’re at the top of whatever the new alignment is going to be. So far, Iran’s looking like it is well-placed to come out of this even more powerful than when it all began.

VERDICT: The Islamic Republic goes forth, with or without an appreciation of irony.

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Egypt’s river dries up as Burundi joins Nile Basin Initiative

In the midst of the chaos across the Middle East, has no one noticed that Egypt has just lost control of its most significant and valuable resource? No, not oil – not everything’s about oil, and besides, Egypt doesn’t have that much of the black gold. No, it’s not tourism either – the hotels might be hurting but the pyramids aren’t going anywhere, unless Gaddafi decides to bomb them in a fit of retaliatory pique.

It’s water. Egypt needs a lot of it, being a desert country and all, and gets what it needs from the life-giving waters of the Nile. Despite the fact that the great river flows through ten African countries, Egypt – along with Sudan – gets most of the water. 90% of it, in fact, is shared between Sudan and Egypt under the terms of a colonial-era treaty.

But this treaty is being challenged by a coalition of five Nile-bordering countries, spearheaded by Ethiopia, who have set up the Nile Basin Initiative to renegotiate its terms. This week, under the cover of popular revolutions, Burundi became the sixth member of the group, giving it enough legal weight to scrap the treaty without Egypt’s consent, under the provisions of international law. They haven’t done so – yet.

Egypt is obviously in no position to respond – this is further demonstrated by the fact that Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper, had to seek comment from the former Minister of Water and Irrigation, who made the nonsensical statement that any decisions coming from the new coalition are only binding on the members of the new coalition, and would not apply to Egypt or Sudan. All true; but if they decide to use dam the water upstream, it will suddenly start looking very applicable indeed.

This is Egypt’s – and Sudan’s – most serious foreign policy consideration, as we’ve commented on before. Don’t be surprised if this causes the next revolution or war. Egypt is a fundamentally unbalanced, with not nearly enough fertile land to support its population, even if the water supply remains constant. Take away the water and there will be problems.

VERDICT: This is bad news for Egypt, but the existing treaty is very unfair and deserves to be replaced with something more thoughtful. And we always like to see African regional integration. So the Nile Basin Initiative goes forth.

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The malign influence of Africa’s King of kings

As the last stand of Muammar Gaddafi plays out in blood and bullets across the Libyan desert, it’s worth remembering that Libya is the most African of the North African countries and the toppling of the green revolutionary regime will have far more impact in sub-Saharan Africa than either Mubarak’s or Ben Ali’s departures. This is no accident, or ethnic generalisation; Gaddafi, spurned by the Arab League for his increasingly eccentric ways, and their ability to see right through his blatant power grabs, deliberately turned his attention on Africa, trying to make Libya the head of a new African polity. The ‘United States of Africa’ is his dream; so is the African congress of chiefs and tribal leaders which in 2008 crowned Gaddafi Africa’s ‘King of kings‘.

This culminated, unsuccessfully, in the bizarre African Union summit last year in Kampala where he tried to get himself elected as AU Chairperson for the second time in a row, employing some of the techniques which have served him so well in Libya over the years. These techniques failed, with the AU electing Malawi’s Bingu Wa Mutharika instead (followed this year by Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, showing that it wasn’t Gaddafi’s politics that the AU had a problem with). Nonetheless, since the 1990s Gaddafi has exerted an increasing and often malign influence on the continent, and there are a few countries who might be affected by his departure.

Most obviously, there’s Chad; the two countries share a common border, which doesn’t prevent either of them from sending in the troops when the time is right. Gaddafi brought Idriss Deby, the Chadian president, to power in 1990 by supporting him financially and militarily, and continues to dabble. Deby has subsequently denounced Gaddafi for supporting Chadian rebels trying to overthrow him.

Gaddafi supported these particular rebels, based in Chad’s far east, because of their proximity to Sudan, and the support they were able to give to another of his interests – the rebels in Darfur, particularly the Justice and Equality Movement, whose leader Khalil Ibrahim continues, as far as I can make out, to enjoy the comforts of exile in Tripoli after being denied entry to Chad.

Most controversially, if true, are unconfirmed reports that Gaddafi was sponsoring the Unity Party of Liberian president and Western media darling Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. This news surfaced at around the same time that Sirleaf announced her intention to run for office again – within her constitutional mandate, to be sure, but in violation of a very specific campaign promise she made to serve only one term. The two leaders are also alleged to be personal friends.

This is just a sampling; there are undoubtedly more African governments and political groupings that have been enjoying Gaddafi’s largesse, and his departure may well see a subtle rearranging of Africa’s own political landscape. Unless someone else steps in to fill the void.

VERDICT: A Gaddafi-less African can only be a good thing. His departure goes forth.

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Better a king than a president in the Middle East

Can a king be a king without a crown? Yes say kings Al-Khalifa of Bahrain and Abdulla II of Jordan. (Pic: LIFE)

In the end, titles are important, especially if you are a despotic Middle Eastern ruler. A quick survey shall illustrate:

Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya: all run by Presidents-for-life. The protests which have rocked/are rocking these countries, while very different in origin and nature, have a common theme – they all demand the exit of the president himself.

Bahrain, Jordan*: both run by monarchs. I’m not too sure about Bahrain, but certainly in Jordan the King is the centre of power. Yet in both these countries the protesters have been very careful to emphasise that they are not protesting the monarch, but rather the government (which was appointed by the monarch). One protestor (a Bahraini blogger) tweeted today: “Just to clear things up, nobody wants AlKhalifa [the king] out. Hell, I would rather they rule Bahrain than anyone else. We just want our rights.”

It’s a curious position. While presidents-for-life have their legitimacy conferred by rigged elections, monarchs have theirs conferred by the pomp and ceremony of royalty, but their powers and influence on the state amount to much the same thing. But, right now at least, I’d rather be a king than a president – if, of course, I was an authoritarian Middle Eastern ruler trying to maintain a firm grip on power. Which I’m not.

* It will be interesting to see what the protestors in Morocco are going to say, another monarchy with big protests planned for Feb 20th.

** An underestimated side-benefit of monarchy is the ability to pass on power to your son without question (it’s always the son). Mubarak had such problems trying to prepare Egypt to accept his son Gamal as president; if he’d merely been handing the crown over, would there have been any fuss at all?

***This whole theory failed miserably for the Shah of Iran, the last Czar, and Louis XVI. Or perhaps they were just so bad that even their royal aura couldn’t help them.

VERDICT: Titles go forth, says Dr. Third World Goes Forth.

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