First Afghanistan, now Africa

Buoyed up by their recent success in Central Asia, the West is now out to save our continent, writes Andrew Donaldson


WHAT comes after Afghanistan? Why, Africa, naturally. 

So says Tory peer William Hague, who feels that it would be in the West’s interests if attention now shifted from Kabul to our neck of the woods.

While it does seem, fleetingly, that the former foreign secretary is merely working his way alphabetically through a list of the world’s basket cases –– Albania next? — the fate of the continent, he believes, will have “an impact that will make Afghanistan seem like a sideshow”.

His comments follow the call for a meeting of G7 leaders by Boris Johnson to discuss the Afghanistan debacle. This gathering, Hague points out in a well-received opinion piece in The Times, will “be painfully revealing of the scale and nature of the humiliation of the western world” and will not achieve much. 

“A discussion a few months ago would have been a better idea.”

Okay. Lessons learnt and what have you. So let’s move on to the next potential disaster.

“Depressingly,” Hague writes, “this whole, richly varied continent [Africa] merited only one paragraph in the interim national security guidance issued in March by the Biden administration.”

Depressingly, this whole, richly varied continent is routinely regarded as a single country or, at best, a large and somewhat shabby safari park outside Nairobi. 

But Hague is onto something. Citing UN forecasts, he says that Africa’s population was expected to have increased by 1.1 billion people by 2050. That’s more than 100 000 more people every day for the next three decades. “That is almost like adding a new China, in numerical terms.” 

Which is an interesting way of putting it, seeing as the old China is already filling up Africa with its own surplus folk.

But no matter. There’s going to be a lot of people. And it could well be that they’re going to live in cities very much like much like the gleaming, silver-spired hi-tech metropolis that once captured the imagination of Cyril Ramaphosa. 

“We have not built a new city in 25 years of democracy,” our new president declared back in 2018. “Around 70 per cent of South Africans are going to be living in urban areas by 2030. The cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town and Ethekwini are running out of space to accommodate all those who throng to the cities. I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises… 

“Has the time not arrived for us to be bold and reach beyond ourselves and do what may seem impossible?”

Not to be too cynical here, but you’d think we’d first learn how to look after the cities we already have before we start drawing up plans for Squirrelburg.

We digress. Hague’s point is that Africa’s future will be a decisive factor in world affairs; the continent will be host to many “tipping points” that determine the course of global affairs in the years to come. 

“There, even more than in central Asia, will be the vital crossroads between building good governance or sliding into despair, civil conflict and terror. This will be the continent that determines whether most of the world will be using Chinese or American technology and standards.

“Such vast growth in numbers means Africa could become such a success that it lifts more people out of poverty even than China in the past 40 years; or such a disappointment that outward migration, on a scale hundreds of times greater than anything seen so far, dominates the politics of Britain and the rest of Europe. Either way, this is one of the big events of the 21st century — and this time, no one can claim they can’t see it coming.”

We have been here before. I was at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 where Tony Blair’s campaign to gee up international support for increased aid to Africa was blown off the agenda by the 7/7 bomb attacks in London. Any thought of “making poverty history” and pledges of “economic justice” for the continent simply fell by the way. 

The sense of disappointment among Africans at the meeting was palpable. I interviewed Thabo Mbeki in the aftermath. He was incoherent. But then he was perhaps always like that. 

Actually, no. I fib. I didn’t interview Mbeki. He interviewed himself. He picked up my dictaphone, held it up to his mouth in the manner of a sports commentator and asked himself the questions that he believed he should have been asked. Then he answered himself in long rambling monologues that, as far as I was concerned, made no sense whatsoever. But then I was more worried about what was happening in London than the ravings of a small world leader with control issues.

Now, it seems, Africa is back — and with it an understandable pessimism. The continent’s age-old problems are still with us: wars, disease, poverty, corruption. More urgently, the Taliban’s victory has emboldened homegrown insurgent groups and attacks on civilian targets from Mali to Mozambique may now become more frequent.

But, Hague says, there are grounds for optimism — one of these being the prosecution of Jacob Zuma “to show the rule of law can prevail over cronyism and state capture”.  

And, well, yes, it would be a great help if we could actually drag Accused Number One into court without this farce of him waving about a sick note from matron. Still, it’s somewhat satisfying to see Accused Number One’s foundation begging on Twitter for funds to cover his legal fees. The response to the appeal has been one of widespread scorn and derision and, while it’s not a tsunami, the waves of schadenfreude steadily roll on.

The bottom line, Haig says, is that we should be on the G7’s agenda now that Afghanistan has been abandoned to extremists, to be exploited by China. “We cannot afford to do the same in Africa.” 

On the other hand…

There is chaos at Kabul airport. Thousands mass there, hoping for a flight out of Afghanistan. It makes for dramatic television, and we’ve seen little else since the city fell to the Taliban 10 days ago. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

All this shapes the narrative as an evacuation story. Afghan nationals, like those who worked with Nato or at foreign embassies, and their families may now be barred from leaving the country, but there’s still a desperate scramble to get foreigners out before next Tuesday’s deadline.

My concern is not that this live news stream from the airport deflects criticism of Biden for the grossly mismanaged US troop withdrawal or leavens the fury at Boris Johnson for the UK’s botched response to this fiasco. Rather, it directs our focus away from another, perhaps more unpalatable scenario: that the Taliban have taken the country because that’s what the country wants.

In 2013, the Pew Research Centre published a groundbreaking reportThe World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society. It found that 99 per cent of Afghanistan’s Muslims are in favour of making sharia the official law of the country. Seeing as a mere 0.3 percent of the country practice other religions, such as Sikhism and Hinduism, that’s pretty much everyone in the place.

According to the report, Muslims differ widely when it comes to the interpretation of sharia. There are debates, for example, on whether divorce or family planning is morally acceptable. Moreover, while many favour using religious law to settle family or property disputes, there is great discomfort about the application of severe punishment in criminal cases, such as cutting off hands or floggings. 

In Afghanistan, they have no such reservations. About 85 per cent of them believe adulterers should be stoned and 79 per cent support the death penalty for apostasy. Rare consensus, then, in a country where inter-tribal wars have existed for millennia.

It is true that that Western intervention has resulted in some change — but only for an urban elite. There are fears their lives will take a turn for the worse under the Taliban. This will almost certainly be the case where city women are concerned. 

Some 80 per cent of the population live in the country, in rural villages way beyond the reach of international organisations and their projects to teach girls and educate them about their rights. Misogyny is a way of life in the mountains — even without the Taliban. Writing in The Observer on Sunday, activist Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam spelt out her frustrations:

“I was one of the many Afghans and foreigners who tried to make sure that millions of girls would go to schools and, if lucky, high schools and possibly university. But I had to face the truth that they would struggle to find jobs because the economy is still dominated by male-run institutions. Many of those girls would have come out of school, married and having forgotten what little they learned.

“Even last year I was fighting with educated young Afghan men in my victim assistance project. I wanted the widows we were helping to receive assistance in their own right. The argument from them was that any male relative, however distant, was a better choice because a grieving woman was ‘not in her right mind’. Some even wheeled out the old excuse that women are naqes ul aql, according to their interpretation of Islam, roughly translated as having half a brain.”

The Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle has been just as pessimistic. Responding to the suggestion the Taliban would be dragging the country back to the Middle Ages, he wrote: “Hmm. Well, that’s not terribly far, is it? About 80 years, give or take, from where it is now. We are told that women are terrified they’ll be stripped of their jobs and forced to wear the whole sackcloth-and-ashes caboodle once more. Well, perhaps some are indeed worried, with good reason — but only, I would guess, in the posher parts of the capital, Kabul.”

One reason for the Taliban’s swift advance, Liddle offered, was that they enjoyed “quite a lot of public support” outside the capital. “It is a grotesque, and very familiar, fallacy that the people of Afghanistan, like the people of all countries in the world, desire a nice liberal democracy… They palpably do not. But we never learn.”

Liddle was writing before the fall of Kabul. Since then, others have picked up this thread, though in a less trenchant manner. There is some opinion, for example, that the Afghanistan debacle is not merely about a botched withdrawal but a cock-up that erupted after festering for decades, lurching from one mistake to the next in a climate of self-righteousness and naivety. During that time, the appalling casualties mounted: almost a quarter-million Afghans, 70 000 of them civilians. All to no avail. 

Instead of Coca-Colonising these people with messy military interventions and propping up corrupt regimes they don’t want, it would be far better, and much cheaper, if the West just gave them all television sets and satellite dishes. Let them work out the democracy stuff for themselves by watching Will Smith comedies.

And while they’re at it, perhaps they should hand out copies of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to the securocrats and intelligence people. 

First published in 1959, this slim, prescient novel about a young, idealistic CIA agent whose actions in Saigon set in motion a series of consequences diametrically opposed to what he intended has provided a theme for American foreign policy in the last half-century: failure upon failure upon failure served up largely by wonks with little understanding of the world at large, Africa included.