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9 May 2005

Chronicles of deaths foretold

Election 2005: the future - Michela Wrong on Africa

By Michela Wrong

There is one thing you can (nearly) be sure of. The next African crisis to face the British government will appear to come completely out of the blue, as unexpected, quixotic and destructive as a flash flood careering down a desert gully.

If you look back at the past decade, what is striking is how many of the African “stories” that dominated the headlines caught both western powers and the international media on the hop, scrambling for the information needed to compose a halfway coherent statement or semi-useful analysis.

Officials were confidently anticipating a resolution to Sudan’s civil war, when a few small rebel groups excluded from negotiations started getting antsy in Darfur, sparking the ethnic cleansing that threatens to make a mockery of the peace process. Rwanda’s genocide was so unexpected that diplomats living in Kigali were cheerfully renewing their annual memberships of the local American club as the death squads got to work. The British embassy in Harare never saw Robert Mugabe’s decision to play the race card coming, and as for Eritrea and Ethiopia’s border war, its outbreak triggered baffled expressions as one identical thought – “Hang on, I thought those leaders were best friends” – went through foreign observers’ minds.

Why the surprise? It is not that Africa is particularly unpredictable. Nor is relevant information terribly hard to find, at a time when every opposition movement boasts its own website, no rebel group is without a satellite phone, and “conflict prevention” has become an industry in its own right. It is sheer western indifference that ensures Africa retains its capacity to gobsmack.

As a correspondent based in Nairobi for the Financial Times, I once calculated that I, a passing freelance “stringer” rather than a staff member, was nominally responsible for more than 40 countries. And yet the FT, renowned for the breadth of its Africa coverage, has far more correspondents in the field than its rivals. The embassies are afflicted by the same attitude as the media. Their desk-bound staff find themselves having to report authoritatively back to headquarters on countries they have never visited. All this is because no one in authority really wants to hear what the foot soldiers have to say; no one is interested in their warnings about a continent with minimal economic and political clout. It takes a lot to attract the attention of the lumbering brontosaurus that is government strategy, which prefers to deal with one foreign policy issue at a time, and when the dinosaur finally notices, it grumbles, “Why didn’t you warn me earlier?”

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So there are some predictions about Africa that any fool can make today, and stand a fair chance of being proved right: that in the next few years, the horrors in Darfur will grow to the point where British intervention becomes hard to resist. That a new war between Eritrea and Ethiopia will explode. That Mugabe will die, but the brutal system he has created will live on. That the continent may well experience the world’s first conflict – in the shape of the growing wrangle about the Nile – over water. These are chronicles of deaths foretold.

Yet the crisis that will fill our television screens will almost certainly come from a part of Africa few ordinary folk have heard of, and whose very name – last glimpsed in an H Rider Haggard novel, perhaps, or the

memoirs of the explorer Richard Burton – newsreaders will struggle to pronounce. And the aid workers, itinerant stringers and lowly embassy staff who saw it coming will roll their eyes, as officialdom struggles to conceal its astonishment.

Michela Wrong writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman