Woe betide any nation that offends Rwanda’s dignity. The tiny, tech-savvy east African country abhors what it views as the west’s control of aid for political gain, the double standards it sees operating at the International Criminal Court and any hint of patronising, anti-African or racist sentiment. This sensitivity stems from an anguished past: Rwanda regularly berates the west for abandoning it during the 1994 genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people within a hundred days.
So who better to fight Africa’s corner when it comes to Ebola?
When the already opaque language of diplomacy turns to allegories, you know you are on even thornier ground than usual.
In this case, it is the UK trying desperately to convince Kenya they are after all the greatest of friends – if mistrusting, sparring ones.
Addressing a crowd in a televised speech, Christian Turner, the UK High Commissioner to Kenya, likened the pair – once former colony and colonial power – to a lion and buffalo “locked in combat”.
He went on: “On stopping to gather their strength for a final assault, they saw some vultures circling up above. They at once stopped their quarrel, saying: ‘It is better for us to work together than to become a meal for vultures.’”
The Kenyan military says it. The African Union says it. Even al-Shabaab says it. But President Uhuru Kenyatta not only refuses to say it; he actively denies it.
In a speech televised to the nation more than 40 hours after 49 of his countrymen were massacred in a terrorist attack on a coastal town, Mr Kenyatta has blamed not Islamist jihadis from al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked Somali militancy who claimed responsibility for the raid, but “local political networks”.
“The attack in Lamu was well-planned, orchestrated, and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons,” he said in the speech on Tuesday afternoon. “This therefore, was not an al-Shabaab terrorist attack.”
Few corroborate his view. Eyewitnesses, who say gunmen targeted men who could not recite the Islamic creed, are among those convinced it was indeed a terrorist attack. Western diplomats and security experts – who have heavily criticised the Kenyan government’s response to insecurity in recent months – say it is appalling the government is politicising the latest massacre rather than addressing the rising security crisis.
“If you’re not with them they threaten to kill you”. Sheikh Idris Mohamed, a leading anti-jihadi imam in Kenya’s second city of Mombasa, was not afraid to speak out.
Two and a half weeks ago, I met him when he gave an interview to the Financial Times in his dishevelled home to talk about the radicalisation of Mombasa. It turned out to be one of his last. On Tuesday, Sheikh Mohamed was killed in a drive-by shooting on leaving his home for morning prayers. He died on his way to hospital.
The sexagenarian preacher, who was the chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, was one of the most outspoken critics of radical Islam in the country. Last year he was ousted by young worshippers from his mosque in Mombasa, where he had given sermons for more than 30 years. The young congregation later renamed it Mujahideen – those who fight jihad – Mosque.
On catching sight of Sudan president Omar al-Bashir, I was so intent on my head-down enterprise to keep pace with him and his heavies in an effort to secure an interview that I followed him into the bathroom.
Rather shocked on looking up, I immediately found myself ousted. But within an hour, his foreign minister Ali Karti spoke to me instead.
For this was the African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa – the high-level talking shop for the continent’s heads of state, the Davos, and then some, of Africa. It is both extraordinary and perplexing.
In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip. Katrina Manson, the FT’s east Africa correspondent, tells us about her visit to Khartoum, Sudan.
Things take time with Sudan’s bureaucracy. I put in for a journalist visa during the late-September protests. They were triggered when the cash-strapped 24-year-old regime run by president Omar al-Bashir reduced subsidies and increased customs duties at the same time, doubling the cost of some staples overnight. Activists say at least 212 were shot dead on the streets (the state admits to fewer than 70) in the worst state violence against Khartoum under the present regime. The visa arrived in time to visit in December and I was keen to see how people in Khartoum assessed the fragility and future of both the economy and the regime.
What impression did you take away about the situation on the ground?
In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip. Katrina Manson, the FT’s east Africa correspondent, tells us about her visit to Somaliland.
Why now? It was the perfect chance to visit the annual Hargeisa International Book Fair, now into its sixth year. For a nation that wrote down its script only 40 years ago, traditions of poetry and oral history still dominate – whether in assessing the value of a camel, the improprieties of a corrupt state or the riches of secret romance. For six days, writers from Kenya, Nigeria and the UK fly into the small capital as it celebrates its nomadic traditions with daily readings, dance, music and book sales of works from local favourites to Anton Chekhov and George Orwell.
President Barack Obama ended his three-nation African tour in Tanzania (Getty)
On his three-nation tour of Africa, US president Barack Obama has made a big play for business with the US. “We are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance but on trade and partnership,” he told reporters beside Tanzania president Jakaya Kikwete outside State House on Monday. “Ultimately the goal here is for Africans to build Africa for Africans.”
But he has run into detractors in east Africa’s biggest economy, Kenya, alongside those who deride him for playing painfully late catch-up to China.
In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip. Katrina Manson, the FT’s east Africa correspondent, tells us about her visit to Somalia.
Why now? It’s a rare day anyone can say the future looks bright for Somalia, but for the first time in years, the state preyed on by jihadis, pirates and warlords has a shot at stability. The most significant success came towards the tail-end of 2011, when African Union troops forced out al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, from the capital Mogadishu.
On guard: a pirate on the Galmudug coast.
Ever since, diplomats, donors and Somalis have been hopeful. But Somalia hasn’t had a functioning government for the past 22 years. Everything needs to be done and all gains are fragile. Relations between a new, weak central government and clan-aligned regions are increasingly fractious, al-Shabaab launches regular suicide attacks on Mogadishu and still controls much of the southern countryside. This month, the UK hosted a conference dedicated to security, political stability and reform in Somalia. Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid were pledged. Much more is needed, but Somalia’s debts need to be cleared first.
In 2005, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal, satirical essay, How to Write About Africa, urged outsiders to conjure descriptions that are “romantic and evocative and unparticular”, talk of safari animals, the African light, big skies and always “treat Africa as if it were one country”.
On those criteria, new China president Xi Jinping’s cliché-heavy first speech on African turf as head of state has measured up all too well. Addressing Tanzanian dignitaries in a Chinese-built conference hall on his first trip to Africa as head of state, Xi spoke of his welcome being “as warm and as unforgettable as the sunshine in Africa” and characterised the economy as “forging ahead like a galloping African lion”.
He also spoke of the warm reception received by a Chinese television series in Tanzania and told a story about a young Chinese couple who honeymooned in the Serengeti and wrote a blogpost on their return that was a bit of a hit in China, which said: “We have completely fallen in love with Africa and our hearts will always be in this land.”
In a blow to Xi’s stated aim of treating Africans as “equals”, Wainaina said the tone of the imagery offered “cheap sentiment” that “smacks of paternalism”.
“China’s charm offensive seems to want to assume there are no serious cultural and intellectual exchanges and conversations to be had,” said Wainaina after reading excerpts of the speech. “I do not get a sense of what Africans are thinking and planning… what African thinkers mean to a growing China. If a Chinese leader cannot begin to articulate what Africa is to them with more substance, Africans should be worried.”
Such sentiments should also worry China, which seems to be failing in its efforts to sidestep allegations of neo-colonial attitudes that mar Africa’s relations the west and to deliver the “bosom” friendship Xi said he espouses.