by Charles Onyango-Obbo

ONE OF the biggest mistakes the world has made about Africa over the years, is to work from the position that it is politics is driven by ethnic rage and fear, a simple desire to grab public goodies for one’s family and clan, ignorance, superstition, and an anti-technology culture.

I suspect African leaders like that, because it means they are not held to high world standards and thus are allowed to get away with murder. But African politics is as cold, calculating, cynical, strategic, and interest-driven as America’s, China’s, Western Europe’s or Russia’s.

africa-according-to-usa-476x714So we shouldn’t make the mistake of looking at South Africa’s foray into the Great Lakes as nothing more than an attempt to line the pockets of President Jacob Zuma’s relatives and the “hyenas” in his ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. Nor is Tanzania’s new aggressive posture in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or indeed Rwanda’s and Uganda’s “interference” in DRC motivated only by their stomachs and narrow cross-border identity politics. No.

To begin with, over the last 30 years, the colonial-derived idea of “sphes of influence” that prevailed in Africa has been collapsing. Somalia, for example long ago ceased being an Italian sphere of influence. And French-speaking Africa is no longer French and Belgian. Thus Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Angola, name it, could all stick their noses into the DRC and Paris could do little to stop them. And English-speaking Africa is no longer British turf. The Americans started muscling in from the early 1960s. Over the last decade China has become the camel that is taking over everyone’s tent.

However it was the financial crisis in the west that started in earnest in late 2006, and the growth of the anti-globalisation movement that left Europe and the USA on the ropes, that shattered the old ‘spheres of influence”

So when the west got terrified about how terrorism was formenting in Somalia, we didn’t have a 1992 American-style invasion. The job was sub-contracted to Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, and Kenya as the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Somalia, AMISOM. When US President Barack Obama thought he needed to help Uganda hunt down the dreadful Joseph Kony, leader of the limbs-and-lips-cutting Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), he sent in a paltry 100 Special Forces troops.

Libya-coup-6jAjKpNlV0-200x200In Libya, when France, Britain and the US decided to help topple that strange dictator Muammar Gaddafi, they supplied weapons to revolutionaries, and bombed, bombed, and bombed him from the seas and air. They didn’t put boots on the ground, except a few specialist “trainers”. France therefore surprised when it broke this mould, and sent troops to Mali early this year to repel Islamist rebels who were trashing the country – but there is a reason why, as I shall explain.

You could say that with the old superpower cats in decline and absent, the African mice could now play. But something else had to happen.

Even without western superpower cats, with the end of the Cold War, Africa had its own geopolitical order. It was a loose 7-node structure, based on the understanding that South Africa (before and after apartheid) would look after the Southern African shop. Nigeria would keep an eye and order in Western Africa. Libya would mind the northwestern end of North Africa, otherwise Egypt would be the cop of the North.

The Horn of Africa, that would be Ethiopia’s territory.

East Africa was Kenya’s.

Central Africa and the East African hinterland, that was Uganda’s although President Yoweri Museveni has always seen himself as an African supremo. The Maghreb was too fluid, but then most people didn’t think it mattered much anyway – until Chad discovered oil.

Of these, the most muscular and interventionist prefects were Uganda (which dispersed troops to Sudan, helped the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army in its war, was all over eastern DRC, and had its troops at the border with Chad) and Nigeria, especially during the rule of the sadistic and corrupt  General Sani Abacha, who sent Nigerian troops to end the madness in Sierra Leone with a big hammer. Later it was Olusegun Obasanjo who dealt rather firmly with the Liberian warlord president Charles Taylor.

Then the tide took a bad turn. Nigeria has failed to get a firm hand on the tiller after Obasanjo, and rebels in its Delta region, but more devastatingly the Boko Haram “terrorists”, have bled Nigeria out badly. The country is becoming anaemic in geopolitical terms. That is why France could boldly march into Mali, and be received with cheers, as the regional group the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) twiddled its thumbs. Obasanjo would have asked for a piece of the action. Today, Nigeria is paralysed. Three children among 11 killed during Mali military operation

Following a disputed December 2007 election Kenya plunged into its worst violence since the Mau Mau rebellion of the late 1950s. About 1,400 people were killed and 600,000 displaced from their homes. For the first time, there were Kenyan refugees fleeing in their thousands to eastern Uganda.

Kenya’s sense of itself, especially among the jingoistic elements, that it was the “Special One” went up in smoke. When President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto won the election in March 2008, a shift took place. Both men are battling charges of crimes against humanity – which they deny – at the International Criminal Court at The Hague resulting from their alleged role in orchestrating  the 2008 post-election violence.

The Kenyatta government’s criticism of the ICC as an “imperialistic tool” came at a time when Africa was in revolt against The Hague, with the African Union twice voting not to cooperate with it. This AU support for Kenya’s position has pushed Kenyatta’s Kenya into the most pan-African posture any Nairobi government has ever had to take. Historically Kenya had seen itself as some kind of bridge between the west and Africa. That is now water under the bridge. Kenya:

The withdrawal from ICC sends a strong message (analysis)

Because it is important for the Kenyatta government to help keep the growing anti-ICC sentiment on track, it has had to pay a price. Increasingly, it has become a follower, not a leader, on African issues.

Uganda, which pioneered the AMISOM force, and has troops chasing Kony in the forests of eastern Congo, and as many as 3,000 stationed far away in the Central African Republic, is suffering an African version of “imperial overreach” though President Yoweri Museveni still talks big.

In Ethiopia, in August 2012, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died. He had many enemies, and they celebrated his demise. But he was also a forceful and cerebral figure, much admired in world politics. He had become the African “representative” at many international forums. The many African presidents who gathered in Addis Ababa for his funeral were not shedding crocodile tears. Many did understand that the passing of Meles had complicated matters.

Then in February 2011, that cornerstone of North African “stability”, the modern-day Pharoah Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular revolution, and the centre but all collapsed. The wave that swept him started in Tunisia, toppling a minor, but still important regional strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January.

The political grim reaper of African politics, then truly raised his game in Libya, where Gaddafi, after 42 years, ended up as a frightened tyrant hiding in the trenches, cornered by an angry revolutionary mob, which lynched him in October 2011.

The only African power that was not in crisis and, as already reported, had found renewed energy and confidence from hosting the 2010 World Cup, was South Africa.

drcongoWith this big vacuum, South Africa put on its suit, picked up its fat briefcase, and stepped out into the continent. Imperial expeditions have not changed over the ages. They always require that the generals, princelings, and businessmen earn some silver and gold from it, if they are to continue cultivating elite and ruling class support for it back home. Places like the DRC, where there is plenty of silver and gold will therefore always be the logical and rational destination – whether the imperialist is Asian, European, American, or African.

But this state of flux in Africa, also means that all pieces on the chessboard have to be re-arranged. And nowhere will one of the most far-reaching remakes of Africa happen than in the DRC’s north Kivus. There, we shall argue, a new nation that a friend has called Republic of Vulcania (after the volcanic activity in the area) will arise. Or at least it will try to.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is managing editor for multimedia operations for The Nation Media Group in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Currently based in Nairobi, he is the former editor of Uganda’s leading independent newspaper, The Monitor, for which he writes a weekly current affairs column, “Ear to the Ground.” He is a weekly columnist for The East African, a prestigious regional paper. In 1997, Onyango-Obbo published a collection of political and social essays about Uganda in his book Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets. Awarded many prizes for his columns and feature writing, he was named Uganda’s Journalist of the Year in both 1992 and 1995. Onyango-Obbo was a Nieman fellow in 1992.

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