Hard work ahead for democracy activists

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Last year was when the war on terror came of age in Africa, with the Horn of Africa simmering and a new regional conflagration looming.

But 2006 was also the year that China emerged as a dominant trading partner with Africa.

China's trade with Africa is likely to have hit about R346billion last year, level-pegging with other trading blocs in Europe and North America. The grand African summit in Beijing in November set the seal on China's economic role.

But the unfolding crises in the greater Horn of Africa are drawing attention from other important developments on the continent: African economies are growing at their fastest for almost three decades as foreign interest booms in African equities and money markets.

And there is the upcoming election season in Africa.

This year, some of Africa's biggest countries are either holding national elections (Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and Sierra Leone) or recovering from them (the DRC and Egypt) or preparing for them in the near future (Angola and South Africa).

Hard-pressed officials at the African Union's (AU) headquarters complain that their work is focused on the Horn of Africa to the detriment of continental issues such as political reform and national crises in Ivory Coast, Guinea, the DRC and Zimbabwe.

The US assistant secretary of state for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, said she spent 80percent of her time last year working on Sudan and Somalia.

The US's war with al Qaeda started in Africa, when militants bombed US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998.

Since then the US and France have hugely expanded their military bases and listening posts in Djibouti from where they co-ordinate war on terror operations.

Somalia was a test case for the war on terror strategists: it showed how quickly a national struggle for power can escalate into a regional, or even an international, conflict when external powers intervene.

Both sides in Somalia's conflict called in foreign allies. Neither was interested in a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.

US officials saw the Islamic courts regime in Mogadishu as an al- Qaeda front with the ambition of turning Somalia into Africa's Afghanistan.

European diplomats differed with the US but lacked an alternative.

The AU split, with many sub-Saharan countries backing Ethiopia's intervention against the Islamists in Mogadishu whereas the Islamic north African states backed the Islamic courts.

The Arab League was sympathetic to the Islamists in Mogadishu and supplied them with arms.

It is dangerously reminiscent of the Cold War era, when the US backed Ethiopia in the Ogaden war against Somalia, which was backed by the Soviet Union.

National wars in Angola, Mozambique and the DRC were also exacerbated by the Cold War powers and their regional proxies taking sides.

At the other end of the Horn of Africa's arc of crisis is Sudan, where president Omar al-Bashir's Islamist regime has faced mounting pressure over its attacks on black villagers in the western province of Darfur.

Congolese and Rwandan rebels have been branded terrorists and deemed to be beyond negotiation

Though Bashir publicly capitulated last month to international demands that he allow a UN peacekeeping force to protect civilians, UN officials still expect to face huge obstacles on the ground.

Bashir's regime, having hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, has played its hand carefully in the West's war on terror.

Under pressure from Washington, Khartoum sent its intelligence chief, Salah Abdallah Gosh, to brief Western intelligence officials about al-Qaeda networks in Sudan and beyond and it agreed to join a serious effort to negotiate a peace with its opponents in southern Sudan.

Beyond the Horn, other African states have taken up the war on terror rhetoric.

Until recently, Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, rejected negotiations with the Lord's Resistance Army, which he designated as mere terrorists.

Congolese and Rwandan rebels have similarly been branded terrorists, as have oppositionist supporters in Malawi and Zambia.

Authoritarian leaders in Africa have new choices.

Like Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang, they can stamp on their opponents and claim to be key allies in the war on terror and hand out oil acreage to Western oil companies.

For Africa's hardened pro-democracy activists, this year is set to be a busy one.- BBC Africa