News & Comment

7 April 2012

Filed under News & Comment

What Kibaki’s snub means for old Europe

There is bad news for those aggrieved European diplomats whose complaints about being denied access to President Kibaki made headlines last weekend.

Goaded by the diplomats’ grumbles, angered by the arrogance that lay just below the surface, and astonished by the apparent ignorance of the shift in international relations with Africa, State House let rip:

“The world has changed, and so have our priorities”, the diplomats were in effect told. “The countries you represent are rapidly declining in importance. So stop trying to jump the queue. The President’s diary is full. Period.”

Diplomatic snub

It was a two-fingered diplomatic snub that doubtless sent the ambassadors into a flurry of activity, composing dispatches trying to play down such a frank dismissal. Yet the message at the heart of the State House response could not be ignored. The Kenyan worm has turned — at last.

For years the Kenya Government did the bidding of the bwanas in Britain and bosses in Washington.

Whether boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics or being soft on apartheid, whether making deals that turned Mombasa into a US navy facility, or allowing north-east Kenya to become a vast training ground for British troops, State House could be counted on to meekly roll over and comply with West desires.

Those days have gone. And in making it clear that Europe no longer counts in the way it once did, I suspect that State House is reflecting a widely held view.

Ever since Kenya became independent, a steady stream of emissaries from Europe has beaten a path to the State House door, confident that it will open in automatic welcome.

I say “emissaries”, but only for lack of a collective noun to describe this gaggle of political has-beens and want-to-bes, junior ministers and smooth opportunists, and assorted influence-peddlers and sales people, all still shaped by the colonial past, all with one assumption in common: that a meeting with the native in charge was no more than their rightful due.

That access has ended and they are the casualties of a new dispensation. Whatever the failures and shortcomings of President Kibaki, he has identified the international political reality that followed in the wake of the economic changes taking place throughout the continent.

From Johannesburg to Juba, from Lagos to Lusaka, something dramatic is afoot. Fuelled by new oil finds, funded by cheap loans from China, and by returning capital from the diaspora, Africa’s landscape is being transformed.

But it is more than new shopping malls and office blocks, paved roads and new ports, skyscrapers and airport terminals.

Governance is improving

Governance is improving. The military stay in the barracks — or are shunned when they venture out — and human rights are higher on the agenda.

And arguably most important of all for a region that seemed to have lost confidence, there is a surge of creativity: novelists and artists, film-makers and musicians, all are part of the African dawn.

The new Africa is looking for new friends. And this involves finding new partners, forging new relationships, seeking fresh starts. I don’t just mean deals with China, or India, Russia or Brazil. The courtship embraces Turkey and Singapore, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia and Japan .…

The consequences of this have yet to dawn on the indignant European ambassadors in Nairobi, for they are stuck in the past, trapped in old habits.

And the old ties that used to bind are withering on the vine. Business leaders who once made their career in Africa now regard Lagos or Luanda as hardship posts, to be endured not enjoyed.

Academics who once spent their professional lives researching the continent and working in its universities now struggle to find funds for African studies.

Fewer journalists are now  on the continent, and rewritten news agency accounts have taken the place of dispatches from the front line, while former colonial civil servants have taken their knowledge to the grave.

And diplomats who once saw Africa as a posting that would benefit their ambitions and further their careers, have long seen the region as out of the mainstream of world affairs.

This is not to suggest that there was a golden era of western engagement. The more one learns about the colonial period the greater the scepticism about its benefits; but at least there was reasonably informed knowledge about the continent, its risks and its opportunities.

But as Africa entered the economic and political crisis that reached its nadir in the 1980s, the Western business community effectively began to withdraw. The region was in effect left in the hands of the IMF and the World Bank, who all too often administered medicine that was too strong for a weak patient.

Africa’s recovery from this grim period amounts to the most exciting change since the end of colonial rule, with implications for Europe that could hardly be more profound.

Some 50 years ago, the late Harold MacMillan, the British prime minister, warned white South African parliamentarians sitting in Cape Town that apartheid South Africa would sooner or later feel the impact of a wind of change that was blowing through the continent.

Today, Europe’s leaders are missing the chance to initiate debate about the significance of events which, in their own way, are part of a different but equally powerful wind of change, felt from Cape to Cairo.

Alas, this all seems to be lost on Europe’s diplomats in Nairobi. They stand on their dignity, behind the times and out of touch, and missing opportunities instead of leading the way. 

President Kibaki has issued far more than a snub. It is a wake-up call to the West.  Africa is on the move. Will Europe respond — or will it be left behind?

Michael Holman, Financial Times Africa editor from 1984 to 2002, contributed this column while travelling in East Africa. He is the author of an acclaimed trilogy of novels set in Kibera satirising diplomats, aid workers and foreign journalists. The latest in the series, Dizzy Worms, is now out on paperback.