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Wake up you sleepyheads
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 07 - 2009

Washington and Moscow cannot tango together in Africa, especially with China stealing the spotlight with its shimmies, writes Gamal Nkrumah
An ethics lesson from an unlikely quarter? Tegucigalpa is no coxswain as far as African democracy is concerned. What, you may ask, has Honduras got to do with cracking down on dissent in Africa? Witticism aside, there are major instructions to be drawn from the recent experience in this tiny Western Hemisphere nation that has this week so conspicuously grabbed the headlines.
The Honduran military staged a coup against President Manuel Zelaya, on Sunday morning yet. He was in bed, barefoot and in his pyjamas. The generals whisked Zelaya off to neighbouring Costa Rica. Mercifully, it was a bloodless coup.
Zelaya's supporters were outraged at the abduction and spiriting away of their idol. "There is no justification for this coup," protested Zelaya upon arrival in Costa Rica. Coups are still quite common in Africa but have gone out of fashion in Latin America.
The Honduran unicameral National Congress on Sunday agreed to officially oust Zelaya from office and promptly designated Congress Speaker Roberto Micheletti as Zelaya's successor. United States President Barack Obama, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega all strongly condemned the unconstitutional ouster of Zelaya. In an unprecedented direct response to the Honduran coup, Obama, Ortega and Chavez spoke in unison.
Much to the chagrin of Zelaya supporters, Micheletti is desperately trying to reduce political tensions, avoiding any provocation that might trigger further disruption or violence that could be used to justify a new military coup. Zelaya has the backing of the three-quarters of his compatriots living below the poverty line. The world food price crisis struck Honduras with exceptional severity. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch cost the impoverished Western Hemisphere country $3 billion in losses. Former Honduran President Carlos Roberto Flores estimated that Hurricane Mitch literally swept away crops and infrastructure development in the Caribbean and reversed 50 years of progress. It is against this horrific backdrop that the leftist Zelaya was democratically elected in a landslide victory in 2006. Championing the poor, Zelaya intended to reform the constitution that prevents him from re-election when his term expires in January.
"I prefer to trust in the will of the masses, and in the opinion of the people," Zelaya explained to his ecstatic supporters. He urged direct voter participation instead of the traditional representative democracy historically monopolised by a handful of wealthy Honduran families and their hangers-on. The Honduran constitution bans the president from serving more than one term in office.
Yet the battle for political legitimacy is unlikely to end with the ouster of Zelaya. The toppled president announced that he would attend the Summit of Central American leaders in the Nicaraguan capital Managua on 30 June. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega fully supports Zelaya and recognises him as the legitimate representative of Honduras. Zelaya was cut short. He was not permitted to finish his term in office and democracy advocates around the world are supposed to applaud the decision by the country's military and lawmakers to depose him on 28 June as a preventive measure from turning him into a potential dictator. So much for Honduras being a democratic country.
That such laws and legal mechanisms exist at all -- and are so readily invoked -- highlights what a long way Honduras still has to go in building sustainable democratic institutions. The tiny Central American country was the proverbial Banana Republic.
A clique that serves Western interests has run Honduras, like many African countries across the Atlantic Ocean, as a classic neo-colonial state. When leaders emerge who try to change the status quo, the most vicious forces of reaction -- local and foreign -- confront them and thwart their efforts to institute reform. Some like Chavez get the thumbs up, though not without hiccups.
Whatever the outcome it doesn't look very good for democracy in Honduras at the moment. The Honduran National "Human Rights" Commissioner Ramon Custodio warned that he feared pro-democracy activists would be "assaulted by the mobs" -- he was referring to Zelaya's supporters. It's rather clear which side of the coup Custodio is custodian of.
Tapping into a sense of betrayal among those who had looked to President Zelaya as a national saviour, the leftist leaders of Latin America are garnering support for Zelaya.
In Honduras, there are five officially recognised and legally operating political parties: the rightwing National Party (PNH), Zelaya's Liberal Party (PLH), the Social Democrats, the Social Christians and the Democratic Unification Party.
The continuing political role of the military, its explicit and implicit use of violence when the political need demands, and its tedious protection against presumed leftist threats -- imagined or real.
The clamour for more participatory politics peaked by the turn of this century. In Latin America, this meant that a host of leftists of different shades of red and pink were democratically elected. The people of Latin America were fed up with rightwing dictators. Spring cleaning began.
In Africa, the overall picture is somewhat indistinct and vague. People have tired of sorely abused socialist rhetoric and yet they anticipate fresh popular participatory in the decision- making process. The deficiency in the provision of basic health and educational services animates political discussion. The scope of charitable activities has prompted Western humanitarian agencies to intervene since the widening holes in the African social security safety net have exacerbated the social and political disgruntlement of the African masses. The West, or rather Western donors -- governmental and non-governmental -- emerged as the prime movers and shakers championing citizen rights and they assumed public responsibility from the comprador ruling cliques, brandishing the moral upper hand. This is the way things should be from the Western point of view. No Chavezes, thank you very much.
In their efforts to lay solid democratic foundations, the civilian leaders of Latin America have given a voice to indigenous people as Bolivia's Evo Morales has demonstrated. Due to his enduring popularity among rural voters, the Liberal Zelaya is living proof that leftists have infiltrated former bastions of reaction.
Whether you are riding high or lying low in pan-American politics, marvel at the crazy fluctuations in the fortunes of the leftist leaders of Latin America. No, sadly, Africa is no Latin America. The rightwing residues of past left-and-right wing military dictatorships have yet to come to terms with the necessity of political compromise with their genuine leftist foes that appear to be on the upsurge, however timidly. In Africa, politicians have not even started to take responsibility for their own fate. And, this is where the Honduran example comes in handy.
Between Africa's needs and dreams, the US and Russia pale in comparison with China's gusto. But both Washington and Moscow have to face reality. Despite improvements in quelling civil wars in several corners of Africa over the past decade or so, the continent is a mess, nowhere near achieving an economic aboutface.
Only, they reckoned, could African countries consider themselves truly free and sovereign.
Since political independence, African peoples with several distinct languages, cultural traditions, ethnicities and religions have found a way to live together peaceably in several African countries. In some countries, however, unscrupulous politicians ruthlessly exploited tribalism, a problem that Latin America does not face, at least not to the same confusing extent.
The African path always seemed a foolish one. Only politicians acting ostensibly on behalf of the tribe profited. The bulk of the so-called tribal peoples couldn't meet the costs of prohibitively expensive medical care nor pay the fees for their child's schooling. Their dependence on charity and Western humanitarian relief and aid groups intensified. Yes, divide and rule, in yet another guise.
It is against this dismal backdrop that Obama is scheduled to visit Ghana on 10-11 July immediately after his visit to Moscow on 6-8 July and his participation in the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy on 8-10 July.
And let me give you a little more cause for concern. Africa will neither feature prominently at Obama's talks with G8 leaders in Italy nor with his Russian counterpart in Moscow. Other more pressing issues of international concern will take precedence.
Welcome to politics in the real Africa: it is messy, inconclusive and subject to revision. Africa is obliged to make an appearance on the international stage as a continent of little consequence. How long will it take for Africans to cross the poverty threshold and improve their living standards?
Ghana, for instance, which was chosen by the Obama administration as the only African country on his itinerary has emerged as the exemplary client state in American eyes. "The President and Mrs Obama look forward to strengthening the US relations with one of our most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa, and to highlighting the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development," reads a White House statement.
When the stakes are high, Africans instinctively do better to trust the results of political experiments rather than the guessimates arising from ideological considerations. There are, of course, black holes in this argument. Firm ideological grounding is prerequisite to prevent being sucked into the vortex of globalisation.
So even as Russian President Dmitri Medvedev leads a large trade delegation to Africa this week, in a desperate bid to emulate Chinese enterprise on the continent, his main motive will no doubt be to secure a share for Russia in Africa's fabled natural wealth. Russia's gas giant Gazprom would like to secure contracts to construct new giant gas pipelines in Nigeria, including a trans-Saharan gas pipeline to deliver Nigerian gas to energy-starved European markets. Russia likewise pledged to help Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, to develop its nascent nuclear infrastructure.
In much the same vein, Russia signed a groundbreaking accord with Egypt on nuclear cooperation, promising to construct nuclear power stations on Egyptian soil, much to the consternation of the Americans and Israelis. Russia lags behind the West and China in its trading activities in Africa, but it hopes to catch up quickly with its rivals. Alrosa, Russia's state diamond corporation, and Rosneft, Russia's oil giant, are poised to exploit the vast diamond, hydrocarbon, uranium and other mineral deposits in resource-rich Angola and Namibia, two of the continent's wealthiest nations per capita, that just happen to be on Medvedev's African itinerary.
The Forbidden City, the Kremlin and the White House are all competing for leverage in Africa. Whether the Hondurases of Africa are ready to run the gauntlet of listening attentively to garrulous well-wishers or whether they are ready to brush off Big Brother's sweet nothings and catch hold of the torch of social justice dropped by their original independence leaders is an issue that urgently needs addressing.


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