Labour’s Lisbon pain

By Tom Cargill, manager of the Africa programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (THE GUARDIAN, 10/12/07):

There is a palpable sense of hurt in the voices of senior Labour figures when discussing Zimbabwe. It is understandable. Many, like Neil Kinnock, helped Robert Mugabe to power. Now, for the first time in seven years, there has been an EU-Africa summit and for the second time the UK prime minister is absent from what should be a diplomatic showcase for British efforts across Africa. All because of Zimbabwe.There is a deeper pain too, not yet spoken of openly. It is the sense of betrayal that, in the «him or us» ultimatum on attendance at the summit, African leaders sided with Mugabe rather than Gordon Brown. After 10 years of power, one point of faith remains fervently held by all in the Labour party: that it fought against colonialism and stands in solidarity with the developing world – sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Within the government, though, there are three fundamental misunderstandings of African politics and realities. First, that history matters. Many Africans acknowledge that the crisis in Zimbabwe is of Mugabe’s making, but they enjoy watching him embarrass a former colonial master – Britain. Hence, their leaders wish to be identified with him. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, who himself came to power at the barrel of a gun, told Brown last month that «Mugabe is a revolutionary who fought to emancipate his people. When you are dealing with a revolutionary, you listen to his points, rather than give him orders.»

The president of Senegal spoke for many African leaders yesterday when he rejected criticism of Mugabe as being «misinformed». And the Southern African Development Community criticised the EU even for mentioning Zimbabwe at the summit.

Second, British Labour ministers wrongly assume that there will be a natural empathy between them and African politicians of the left. But, despite the apparent shared ideology, there is a strong strain of social conservatism across much of Africa. Great store is put on formality and deference, and UK ministers, in their assumption that they are seen as «one of us» by African leaders, have often fallen foul of this. Mugabe cleverly manipulated this when he said in 2000: «They [Labour] have taken an attitude that they are greater than ourselves, more noble … They appear as arrogant little fellows.»

This leads on to the third mistaken assumption: that African leaders share British priorities for the continent. In broad terms, of course, there is near-consensus on growth and development; but UK ministers still tend to think of Africa in humanitarian and developmental terms, when African leaders have a much more immediate political view of priorities. The battle for political power across most of Africa is fierce and ruthless. The UK government view of the continent can, in such circumstances, appear frustratingly naive.

These three assumptions have blunted the laudable British objectives for Africa, and allowed Mugabe to misrepresent UK intent. But there are signs of positive change. David Miliband doesn’t appear to see himself as part of that anti-colonial crusade. The appointment of Mark Malloch Brown from outside the party as minister for Africa may help clear some of the emotional baggage. The assumption of shared ideological background is now damaging relations far more than it is helping. Britain must move on to developing a more businesslike common agenda with African governments. If it does so, it may find it receives a fairer hearing on the continent, and may even still play an important role in unravelling the mess that is Zimbabwe.