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What a week in Africa!

But the African plate was truly full; there were issues to deal with in the Central African Republic; there were the recently-concluded elections in Guinea…

But the African plate was truly full; there were issues to deal with in the Central African Republic; there were the recently-concluded elections in Guinea Bissau; the emerging scenario in Mauritania is also on the Africa menu and not to forget the deepening crisis in Niger, amongst several other problems on the continent. The annual gathering of African leaders was one head shorter this year, with the death of the Gabonese President, Omar Bongo. The short man, who dressed in impeccable designer suits and who aided his short stature with high heeled shoes, was the longest serving African president. He died a few weeks back. His death removed a major plank of the long reigning presidents on the continent. Now the truly old dinosaurs on the continent include the host of this year’s gathering himself, Gadaffi who has been in power since 1969! He would be ably assisted by Presidents Paul Biya of Cameroon; Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe; and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia! President Denis Sassou N’guesso of the Congo should join the list, since he has been on the scene for a while too, first as a military ruler and later a civilian. The ways of the continent are equally mysterious, given that President N’guesso’s late daughter was married to the late President Omar Bongo!

With this formidable line up, it can be understood why it became easier for our leaders to unravel problems facing our continent. The AU dropped sanctions against Mauritania as well as lifted its suspension from the body, because of steps it was said to have taken to restore democracy this month. You might recall that Mauritania was suspended after the army overthrew an elected president last August. The body also froze assets and imposed visa and travel bans on members of the junta (even though nobody explained the effect of such bans, since African despots don’t usually hide their loots on the continent and are known to prefer trips to European, Middle Eastern and Asian destinations). The good news is that an election has now been scheduled for July 18, under a transition administration agreed by the junta and the civilian opposition in Mauritania. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council said the decision to lift the measures against Mauritania was taken at a meeting. “[The Council] looks forward to the presidential election…and requests that all efforts be deployed for the election to take place in the required conditions of transparency, fairness and freedom”.

Last Sunday, presidential elections were also held in Guinea Bissau; they were described as “free and transparent” and “well organised, peaceful, free”, by an observer team from the European Union. Despite that clean bill of health, there was low voter turnout, which observers suggested was due to a climate of “fear and intimidation”, which came in the wake of the brutal assassination of the last president, Joao Bernardo ‘Nino’ Vieira. Just before the elections were conducted, a presidential candidate and former minister, Baciro Dabo, was also shot, while another pulled out of the race, saying that he feared for his life. Guinea Bissau has a population of 1.3 million people and is one of the poorest countries in the world. In recent years, it has become a transit point in the cocaine trade to Europe from Latin America. Many leaders of the Latin American drug cartels are said to have bought choice properties in Bissau, and leading members of the country’s political and security apparatus are said to be in cahoots with the international drugs cartel. Its elections might be said to be free and transparent, but with its deep poverty and a highly compromised state structure, it is not likely that the fate of the nation will turn for the better in the near future!

On the eve of the AU Summit, the Zimbabwean coalition government continued to be rattled by serious problems. The MDC partners of President Robert Mugabe decided to boycott a cabinet meeting called for Monday, instead of the traditional Tuesday. The shift had been done, according to MDC sources, because ZANU members did not want the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, of the MDC, to chair cabinet while Mugabe was away in Libya attending the AU Summit. The storm in the political tea cup had brewed against a backdrop of continuing suspicions harboured by each party in the coalition government. Elements in MDC question the continued stay in a marriage of convenience with Mugabe; but Tsvangirai has repeatedly argued that there was no alternative to the coalition in the circumstance. During a successful trip to Europe and USA, the Prime Minister repeatedly told his hosts that Mugabe was part of the solution, contrary to what they wanted to hear! There were pledges of aid, but they were not sufficient to pull Zimbabwe out of its dire straits. In the end, a near $1billion offer of aid from traditional ally, China, is the best that Zimbabwe has received in recent times.

In the meantime, the MDC and ZANU remain in their marriage of convenience: each one is tired of the union, but none can pull out of it – at least for now!

But the most potentially troubling scenario in Africa seems to be the creeping crisis in Niger Republic. President Mamdou Tadja last week dissolved the Constitutional Court. It came in the wake of his decision to organise a poll to determine if he could go for a Third Term in office, contrary to the constitution of the country. Tandja, an ex-military officer, has chosen to stay beyond his constitutional limit, because he believes no one else but him can husband the potential riches that Niger will harvest from newly-discovered oil deposits. Unfortunately, he has not done justice to revenues arising from uranium exploration. It is the alienation coming from uranium exploration which has fuelled the Touareg rebellion in Northern Niger. Niger has a history of rebellions and coups and it seems that President Tandja is not learning lessons from the history of his own country!

These are some of the background issues which African leaders would have confronted in their conclave in Libya. Gadaffi had promised that his tenure as Chair of the AU was likely to be different; the substance has not been exceptional. Maybe there was a more maverick edge to proceedings under him, and that was underscored by the announcement that the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was likely to attend the AU session and then the cancellation of the trip! Africa’s people have remained largely spectators in this annual African ritual of meetings of the leaders of the continent. However, the crisis situations which build show that pan-African solutions must be devised, but they must be owned by the people to have long term effects that can help peaceful development on the continent. Something new always emanates from Africa; Pliny the Elder was correct!..