Tag Archives: Africa

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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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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So far, Mubarak still has the upper hand

Friday prayers in Tahrir Square. Or a close-up of a quilt. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

For more on my encounter with a purple-shirted sabre-wielder, and how Nelson Mandela prevented my arrest, see here: http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/article/2011-02-04-millions-defy-mubaraks-sabre-rattling-to-march-on-the-day-of-departure.

My quick verdict on the day. Mubarak has played it very well. He’s let the protests happen, he’s minimised violence, and he’s let the people blow off steam. Today’s demonstrations, the largest since the problems began, feel like a climax; the opposition must be wondering what more they can really do, without resorting to violence, that will persuade Mubarak to leave; they will also be wondering for how long they, and the country, can sustain this level of unrest. I have a feeling that the popular mood will start swinging against the opposition, especially after the apparent concession that Mubarak has made, culminating in Omar Suleiman telling the so-called Wisemen Committee of opposition leaders that he will assume all presidential powers and Mubarak will be president in name only; an ‘honorary president’. Albeit one without honour – and that is why I don’t think that’s a real concession. Neither do the opposition leaders, which is why they will keep going for as long as possible.

But who are the opposition leaders? I’m not sure that revolutions can be sustained by committee. Is Egypt missing a proper figurehead, a person to really take charge and offer a viable alternative? The best bet for that person, in my opinion, is still Mohamed ElBaradei; perhaps its time for him to stop playing the diplomat, and start playing the revolutionary. Then maybe he’ll get to play president for a while too.

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Tahrir Square

© Simon Allison, 2 February 2011

It is nine thirty in Cairo, and I am in an internet cafe with bright lights, foreigners, cold drinks on demand and some flamenco music in the background. My head can’t really cope with the sheer normalcy of it all. Half an hour ago, I was pretending to be a teacher, and to be really quite fond of Mr Mubarak, to escape from the pro-Mubarak throngs/thugs who’d set themselves up outside my hostel and who were quite keen to beat up anything foreign on the assumption (reasonable, as it turns out), that all foreigners must be journalists. Half an hour before that, I was watching the Cairo sound and light show in Tahrir Square – the sound of tens of thousands of angry people chanting and banging things, and the light, somewhat beautiful in a grim sort of way, of molotov cocktails arcing their way gently through the night sky. Both sides were throwing them liberally; it looked a bit like a game of fire badminton (I don’t think that’s a sport. But it should be). Half an hour before that I was running alongside an angry mob after they’d got hold of one of the pro-Mubarak supporters who, bleeding profusely from his ear and with most of his clothes torn off, was pleading desperately for his life; a plea granted by the sensible majority of the demonstrators, who carted him off to one of the army checkpoints where he had to step around a dead body to get to where he was supposed to go. The big photo at the top is the one I took of him; apologies that it’s a little graphic.

I’m working on some analysis of today’s events and a better account of the day, which I’ll link to here when they’re up. In the meantime, I actually managed to get something published:



(Yes, I know they both link to the same story; I’m just pleased to have featured in two of my favourite publications.)

VERDICT: Cairo internet cafes, with cold drinks and internet, go forth; Hosni Mubarak’s paid thugs (apparently 50 Egyptian pounds a day is the going rate) go fourth.


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A tale of two men: Omar Suleiman delegates, ElBaradei dances

I’ve only once felt dirty, or sullied, in my working career. I had to prepare a letter of invitation for Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman, for decades Hosni Mubarak’s right hand man: head of intelligence service, runner of secret prisons, compiler of blacklists, torturer-in-chief (although I’m not sure he ever got his own hands dirty; the first rule of succesful tyranny, at all levels, is that the really bad shit must always be delegated). Whatever happened in Egypt, Suleiman knew it first. The invitation was merely a matter of protocol, and I knew that the letter would undoubtedly get lost in the vast corridors of the Mogamma, the monolithic yet somewhat magnificent Interior Ministry building on Tahrir Square. Yet I still felt uneasy at even the hint of a personal connection between myself and this monster of a man.

That feeling returned on Saturday when Mubarak, in his wisdom (or desperation?) appointed Suleiman as his vice-president. Suleiman would not have been Mubarak’s first choice. He’s not stupid, and he knows what they people want, and he knows what the people know, and the people know that Suleiman is not what they want. There are some relative moderates in Mubarak’s political circle, and they would have been much better choices; if still ineffective. Rumour has it that they said no. Either way, the new Vice-President has only inflamed the opposition.

Speaking of choices: a much better one has been made by the Egyptian opposition, whoever that may encompass: Mohamed ElBaradei is a safe pair of hands as the opposition figurehead. I have had the privilege of meeting the man himself; he is measured, dignified, and supremely intelligent. He dances very poorly, but that is neither here nor there. He also has a moral backbone. As I’ve said before, I don’t think the Presidency is his end goal; he is much more concerned with toppling Mubarak and ensuring a new, transparent, progressive politics emerges. My hope is that he can be some kind of interim leader, one that oversees the country and organises proper elections, even if this takes a couple of years. Egypt must not repeat the mistake made in Iraq, where interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi focussed more on getting himself re-elected, and the political squabbles which are an inevitable part of that, than actually getting the country off the ground. ElBaradei, as the only unifying figure in a fairly disparate opposition (and the only person with serious international credibility), is the perfect candidate to manage this transition process. If he is not completely selfless, and few are, he is also well aware that this role is likely to do far more for his reputation and legacy than would a couple of messy terms as president of a country which will take some time to get itself right. What are the odds on a Nobel Peace Prize being awarded twice to the same person? Perhaps its worth a punt.

VERDICT: Omar Suleiman goes 4th, despite the promotion; Mohamed ElBaradei goes forth, with the weight of Egypt and the world’s expectations on his shoulders.

PS. Thanks to Always Judged Guilty for the welcome back.


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Why Mubarak isn’t warming Idi Amin’s spare bed – yet

It’s tempting to see what’s happening in Egypt as a repeat of what happened in Tunisia. In both countries, a simple and powerful narrative has emerged  – the oppressed masses, living in the shadow of a venal, cruel and autocratic regime, finally throw off their shackles through waves of popular protest which are broadcast live on Al-Jazeera. The revolution will be televised. Egypt, being bigger, and Mubarak being more cynical, is taking a little longer and provoking more violence; but in essense, Egypt is mirroring Tunisia’s experience.

In the subtleties, the situations are a little more complicated. Perhaps the most interesting question of all is why, in the face of seemingly overwhelming pressure, has Hosni Mubarak clung onto power so vociferously, whereas Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took flight at the first sign of trouble and now apparently finds himself living in the very same Saudi villa where Idi Amin passed the years of his exile. Perhaps one day it will be a museum.

Mubarak has shown no signs of flight.Here’s why. Tunisia, for all the hyperbole, is a significantly richer and significantly less oppressed society than Egypt. There is scope for the country to adopt some kind of unity government – which it has done already – and muddle through the reforms it desperately needs. Crucially, while proximity to Ben Ali has tainted his key ministers and advisors, it has not proved fatal to their lives or their livelihoods; the government remains largely intact and many of the anicien regime appear to be part of the foundation of the new one. So when the demonstrations got out of hand, and they saw the writing on the wall, they knew they still had a future – or at least a possibility of one –as long as Ben Ali was out of the way. So he got out of the way. Did he jump or was he pushed? I suspect the latter. He left power suspiciously quickly, with a suspicious lack of fight; I’d expect autocratic dictators in his mold to try a bit harder.

Egypt is different. Mubarak personalised his rule to such an extent that an entire class of society came to depend almost entirely on his grace and favour. He came to define patriarchy. And in a much larger and poorer society, the difference between the people who benefitted from having Mubarak in power, and those who didn’t, was much greater than in Tunisia.

The people closest to him stand almost no chance of continuing in his absence, for they are too closely associated with the figurehead. And so whereas the Tunisian elite were happy to see Ben Ali go – well not happy, perhaps, but in a bad situation for them it was the best option – the Egyptian elite cannot afford to be without Mubarak, for then they too will lose everything. They have no option but to stand and fight, and I imagine they aren’t going to allow Mubarak to escape to a desert holiday home while they take all his flak.So, I have no idea if Mubarak would like to join Ben Ali in exile – perhaps Ben Ali could let him have the guest bedroom? – but even if he did want to go, I’m not sure he would be allowed to. This is, I think, why Mubarak has no choice but to cling to power with everything he has.

VERDICT: Hosni Mubarak goes fourth; Idi Amin’s villa goes forth.

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