Africans want G8 to talk more about economy

Monzurul Huq writes from Japan
WHEN the leaders of a group of leading African nations met on Monday with their counterparts from the most powerful block in the present day world at the G8 Summit at Lake Toya in Japan, the two sides definitely had different ideas of what was to be expected and a different understanding of what should be considered as pressing issues.

They also had different mind-sets on how to put pressure on the other and win some concession. G8 leaders no doubt had the upper hand as they collectively account for the bulk of economic assistance channeled to Africa. The African leaders, on the other hand, had been equipped only with the strength of good faith that the carrot and stick policy had become an outdated and discarded practice for playing the game in international politics.

If they were wrong in assessing the opponents, they were definitely not so in their eventual stand in resisting the pressure and turning the meeting into a political showdown. So, on both sides, unhappiness prevails over the outcome of what earlier had been seen as a grand opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and move forward with new vigour.

The G8 Summit in Hokkaido started with what had been officially termed as African outreach working luncheon, where leaders of the G8 countries exchanged opinions on various issues with the leaders of Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. The head of the African Union, the UN secretary general, and the World Bank president also participated in the discussion. The 90-minutes session covered a wide range of issues, from soaring food prices to the situation in Zimbabwe.

At the two-way meeting that marked the start of the G8 Summit, African leaders expressed concern about soaring food and oil prices and urged G8 to take measures to ease the burden of the continent that has been badly hit in the past by natural calamities, civil strife and the spread of diseases. They asked the rich nations to provide assistance in helping the continent boost agricultural production.

The soaring food prices have made the situation of Africa worse, and leaders are aware that rising food prices are adding inflationary pressure, that could further destabilise the already vulnerable social structure.

For the G8 leadership the prime concern in Africa was Zimbabwe, which weighed heavily on their minds, and they’ve spent a fair amount of time in trying to reach a consensus over imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe for what the western leaders see as a naked violation of democratic norms by the country’s leadership. The defiance of Robert Mugabe is an irritant for the west, and the G8 leaders were more interested in solving that issue than what the African leaders considered pressing matters, like food security and development assistance.

African leaders also expressed anxiety over the non-fulfillment of the commitments made by western donors. They are concerned that African support measures agreed to in the past summits were not being implemented and, as a result, the continent is running far behind schedule in reaching the targets set by the Millennium Development Goals, one of which calls for halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015. They are now worried that the current global economic condition could complicate the situation further, and are stressing on quick action by the developed world that would help Africa to overcome the crisis triggered by events beyond their control.

The G8 leaders made it clear that they would enhance support to Africa to help the continent overcome current difficulties. Of specific measures, the leaders said they would look at the possibility of establishment of a grain stockpile system that would ease the burden on Africa in times of crisis. Of fulfilling the earlier commitments, the G8 leaders said they would like to discuss the issue by the next year’s summit in Italy.

But it was Zimbabwe that created most of the controversies and set the two sides apart. The G8 leaders spoke strongly about Mugabe, and some of them urged stronger sanctions against Zimbabwe. Earlier, US President George W. Bush proposed an international arms embargo and sanctions against the government of Robert Mugabe. But a meeting of the African Union last week at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt declined to endorse the sanctions.

At the African outreach meeting of the G8, the United States and European countries expressed strong concern about the situation in Zimbabwe and said that the UN Security Council should compile a resolution to impose sanctions. The African leaders, however, took a cautious line, and the meeting eventually failed to reach a consensus.

E. Kingsley Hope is a journalist working for the Ghanaian Times, and he was in Hokkaido as part of the African journalists’ team covering the summit. He was shocked that the rich countries were still trying to interfere in African affairs very openly. According to Kingsley Hope, the problem of Zimbabwe is no doubt a serious one, but African countries were capable of finding their own solution.

He thinks that the West has to focus more upon sticking to the commitments being regularly made by them at numerous international conferences. He was equally critical of African leadership, as he thought that their position at the G8 meeting was too mild and soft. He thinks that the time has come for Africa to show strong leadership, not a timid one that would bow down to the pressure from the rich and the powerful.

His remarks reminded me of what the World Bank President Robert Zoellick had said on the same day when African leaders were meeting their G8 counterparts. Speaking at a press conference at the International Media Center of the summit, Zoellick said that the message he tried to convey to the donors was that it was better to invest now to avoid a disaster in the future. His message clearly didn’t reach those who often remain very close to him. Otherwise, the Zimbabwe issue would not have been discussed so prominently in a forum that is supposed to focus on more crucial issues.

Monzurul Huq writes from Japan.

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