Opinion

Africa Is Not a Priority in the West

Darfur's rebel groups are meeting in Nigeria, but not much is expected to come of it. Heinrich Bergstresser comments on peculiarities of African diplomacy in the case of Sudan and Africa's marginal status in the world.

photo: AP
The African dilemma: an unrealiable political class and no raw materials or oil interests of the West at stake

​​What's taking place almost simultaneously in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and the Nigerian capital of Abuja is a lesson in modern diplomacy and international relations.

In Abuja, the heads of the African Union (AU) - led by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and AU Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare - are mediating negotiations between the two rebel groups SLA and JEM and a second-class delegation from the Sudanese government.

Africa's marginal status in the world

In Khartoum, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw is currently collecting facts about his country's former colony. Others who have done the same before him include UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

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It's a cynical statement that captures in a nutshell Africa's marginal status in the western world.

And that despite the fact that the situation in Darfur is clear: a human tragedy, that initially arose from a local conflict, is unfolding there and threatening to snowball into a trans-border catastrophe.

Everything's different in Africa

The international community has – at least, ostensibly – reacted. After all, when was the last time there was a comparable case, when leading and influential politicians of this world lined up to get involved in an issue so far away from the world centers.

But was it of any use? Only to a limited extent.

That's because the clocks in Africa tick differently – in some cases, vastly differently. And negotiations over war and peace, over existence and non-existence in Africa always defy forms and rules of modern diplomacy.

No wonder then that western diplomats and observers often helplessly and uncomprehendingly view events such as the negotiations in Abuja or talks in Sudan.

Personal power is still the measure of all things in Africa. And those who've clambered to the top rung of the government defend it with tooth and nail, even with violence if necessary, and against any and all challengers.

Compromises and giving up untenable positions is still largely alien to the political leadership in Africa.

Only a glimpse in the abyss can sway the African politician, but then only amid much talk of respect and saving face. That, however, takes time, a whole lot of it, during which many people die miserably.

But that in itself isn't a real political criteria for African leaders to start immediate negotiations to end conflicts.

No substantial raw materials or oil interests at stake

This pattern is strengthened by the international conflict zone hierarchy in which Africa – including Sudan – are way down on the list of priorities. And since there are no substantial raw materials or even oil interests at stake in this case, the international community declares itself to be in no position to intervene massively and robustly.

Instead, it tries to "Africanize" solving the conflict – with painful, tragic consequences.

The learning process is agonizing for Africa, but also for the international community. Still, there is some movement in Africa's security policies, slow though it may be, borne out on the backs of the population whose ability to bear suffering apparently hasn't reached its limits.

Only at that point, it seems, would Africa's political elite no longer be in a position to exploit the suffering of the people solely in their own interests.

Heinrich Bergstresser

DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE © 2004

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