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Africa

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:19 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 8:19 pm, 30th March 2009

It is impossible, even in 17 minutes, to cover a whole continent and the issues of great importance to it. A number of issues have been mentioned in this debate, and I shall try to touch on some different ones.

Africa is a continent of 50 countries, with hundreds of languages and dialects. The borders within it, drawn on the maps by colonial administrators, do not bear any relationship to the ethnicities or histories of many of the peoples trapped on either side of them. Africa has nomadic people, who, because of climate change and desertification, sometimes have to move hundreds of miles to find water supplies or fresh grazing land. There have been civil wars and wars of intervention from outside. Furthermore, over hundreds of years, and systematically, people from different parts of the world—Europeans, Arabs or people from elsewhere, even including some from Asia—came to Africa, mainly by ship, to get the raw materials and resources and take them back.

At the same time, there have been significant economic developments such as the building of railways and the opening up of communications. However, many of Africa's trade patterns are geared towards former colonial powers. The ports and communications are often on the coasts. Inter-African trade, between neighbouring countries, is limited. In some countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo being the most extreme example, it is extremely hard for people in the capital city to communicate with other parts of their country; the DRC is as large as western Europe, and there is no easy way to get from one side to the other, except by flying.

For many ordinary people in Africa, globalisation has not brought the benefits that it has brought to many other parts of the world. However, as we have seen from television programmes and articles in recent months and years, in the past few years the mobile phone has brought an incredible change and an ability to bypass the old technologies and move towards the new ones. I believe that Africa can and should have—I think it will have—an optimistic future based on modern technologies and investment. There is now talk about building massive solar panels across the Sahara to supply electricity for Europe. With an interconnector grid, that same electricity could supply incredible resources to parts of Africa.

Five years ago, I went to Angola with BP representatives on a trip organised by the Industry and Parliament Trust. They took me to a village called Paranhos, where ex-MPLA fighters and ex-UNITA fighters were living together. The village had solar panels that provided the electricity for a clinic, a newly built school and the housing. When they set up the project, BP representatives consulted the people who were going to be living there about the distribution and organisation of the electricity. A communal system was suggested, so that the electricity would go off at the same time every night for everybody. I remembered something similar, because in the 1970s I taught in a mission school in Swaziland, and the generator went off at 8 o'clock. E. P. Thompson wrote "Writing by Candlelight", but I was marking by candlelight in those days.

In that village in Angola, the people decided that they wanted individual switches and sockets. As a result, suddenly there were power cuts because televisions were being plugged into the light sockets, and that had not been factored in. My point is that even in a rural area people aspired to get the same technology as everybody else had, and wanted to be part of the technological process. Today, there are real opportunities for Africa if only we in the rest of the world recognise that the continent cannot be for the pillaging of resources and that Africa provides potentially large markets and a large number of young people who will be important for the development of the future.

I have mentioned Angola, which has often featured today as one of the countries with phenomenal resources. Some 80 per cent. of Angola's budget comes from oil, and it has had 21 per cent. economic growth in one year. But does the oil benefit the people of Angola? No; it does not often even get to Angola. It comes from under the sea and is put into the tankers that float around the world to see where they will get the best price. The money is transferred into Swiss or other bank accounts and ultimately ends up being spent by a small elite on luxury goods in the most expensive shops in western Europe or north America.

"Undue Diligence", an interesting report by Global Witness, has just been published. Its subtitle is "How banks do business with corrupt regimes", and it has a chapter on how Angola operates. It makes the points that I have just made, and also states that:

"for the last ten years, the amounts lent by commercial banks—mostly European but increasingly also Chinese—in oil-backed deals to Sonangol"— the state oil company of Angola—

"have steadily increased and now involve regular new loans of billions of dollars each. The trade press is full of praise for Sonangol as a reliable borrower—a borrower which has in recent years been rewarded for its reliable repayments with increasingly large loans".

Those loans, of course, have to be paid back at some point. They will be paid back from future oil revenue, which until now has not been invested for the benefit of the mass of the people of the country. We need to be aware that if a country has such raw materials and resources, that allows it to operate outside the extractive industry's transparency regimes and outside the International Monetary Fund. We know from Angola's tragic past that its civil war was financed by arms dealers, Russian oligarchs and others on the basis that they would get income in future from the sale of the country's assets. The people of Angola have suffered grievously from that.

Although the Foreign Affairs Committee has not produced a specific regionally focused inquiry on Africa, we have, over recent years, dealt with several of the countries that have been mentioned—for example, Somalia, where we drew attention to the allegations of human rights abuses and the very serious internal situation before and during the Ethiopian intervention. In our 2007 report, we were critical of the damaging and dangerous impact of air strikes, which, although ostensibly against terrorist targets, had led to large-scale civilian deaths. In our 2008 report, we were very critical of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for failing to pay sufficient attention to that in its human rights discussions, and for making no mention of the human rights abuses that had allegedly been carried out by the Ethiopian armed forces in Somalia. We recommended that the FCO should make Somalia's human rights situation a central focus of its annual human rights report. That report came out last Thursday, and I am pleased to say that it refers to Somalia as one of the major countries of concern. I am pleased that the FCO has listened to what we said. Other African countries, including the DRC, Sudan and Zimbabwe, are on its list of about 20 major countries of concern.

Although reference has been made to setbacks to democracy in Africa, there have also been significant moves forward. Overall, despite difficulties, southern Africa is doing much better than other parts of the continent. We have a vibrant democratic Government in Botswana and a functioning democracy in Namibia—although not as pluralistic as in Botswana. We also have the situation in Mozambique, with the voluntary retirement of the President, a democratic election and an effective, functioning two-party system. That was helped greatly by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, with the Labour party helping the FRELIMO party and the Conservatives helping the RENAMO party. I am pleased that over the years we have been able to assist effectively in that transition, with Mozambique, a Portuguese-speaking country, wishing to come into the Commonwealth because of its desire to be associated with its neighbours.

South Africa, which is of course a very big neighbour, faces some internal difficulties during the transition from Mbeki to his successor, Mr. Zuma, in the African National Congress, and it remains to be seen what will happen in the forthcoming election. However, despite the flaws and difficulties, South Africa has shown the way forward, in terms not only of reconciliation but of pluralistic elections at state and local level, as well as at national level. There are free trade unions, there is a vibrant free press and there is an independent judiciary: those are important aspects of democracy.

Sadly, one small country in the region—Swaziland, between Mozambique and South Africa—is a blot on democracy. The Commonwealth has spent several years trying to help with the democratic processes in Swaziland. When the Swazis were trying to draw up a new constitution, there were intensive efforts to assist in that process. Unfortunately, however, the outcome has not been very good. The Commonwealth expert team's report on the Swaziland national elections, dated 19 September last year, referred to

"an inherent 'dualism' in the Constitution of Swaziland" and said:

"Whereas in a constitutional democracy, a Head of State acts on the advice of the Cabinet and/or Parliament, under the Swazi Constitution the King may also act on his own discretion or on the advice and recommendation of other persons or authorities."

It continues:

"a mechanism should be found to insulate the Monarchy from the turbulence of politics."

That is good advice, which should have been followed by Charles I, and I hope that it will be followed by Charles III. It is certainly something that we should put to all countries where there is a monarchy. The monarchical system in Swaziland is based on a traditional authority, alongside a Parliament where political parties are not formally allowed—they operate, but they are not allowed to contest elections as parties—and where there has been significant suppression and repression of opposition voices.

In that country, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, United Nations Development Programme and official Government of Swaziland statistics, two thirds of the population live in chronic poverty, a majority depend on food aid, there is the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, and 10 per cent. of the population are orphans. When I went back to St. Philip's mission, the school where I worked for Voluntary Service Overseas in 1972, I saw a hostel for 180 orphans built next to the church and the school where I used to teach. Life expectancy for a new-born child in Swaziland is now 31 years; deep issues in that country must be resolved. We withdrew our high commissioner from Swaziland. We now have an excellent high commissioner in South Africa, and we need to keep our focus on Swazliand.

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