• Monday, May 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

CEOs rule – Ok?

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The conference organised by The Times of London called ‘The Times CEO Conference’ now seems to have become an annual event. There is something about the old ‘thunderer’ (as it was called in its early years in the 19th century) that still has a certain magic to it, even if the long years of Rupert Murdoch’s ownership have drained it of some of its genuine authoritative prestige. It is for this reason that it has become, in its third year of operation, a powerful yardstick with which to measure the condition of Africa. It manages to attract a handful of political leaders, but the real attraction is a fine agglomeration of masters of the business universe, who more and more are becoming the continent’s guiding stars to whom the political powers have to bow down. The Summit stressed that one of its main themes was the central role of the private sector in Africa’s present recovery, which would have been an unusual theme twenty-five years ago: indeed, such a Summit could hardly have been held.

The Summit also gives The Times the opportunity to cover all sorts of African stories that as often as not it misses out on – for proper considered African coverage I would still prefer to consult The Financial Times over the course of a year, although perhaps over-dependent on the stories it receives from Xan Rice, its excellent Lagos correspondent. One hopes it may eventually improve the regular coverage in The Times.

There was one head of state, John Mahama, president of Ghana, who spoke eloquently of his country’s prospects, an easier task when you are fresh in power, even if, as Africa Confidential commented, he has not been able to have a honeymoon period. The speaker at the eve-of-conference dinner was Kenya’s former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, one of Africa’s most vocal current leaders, even if like his father Oginga Odinga before him he has still found the top job has eluded him.

In several media encounters he held forth on a variety of subjects, including an interview revealing aspects of how the unfortunate Laurent Gbagbo ended up at the International Criminal Court. It seems that in peace attempts in which Odinga was involved for the AU, each time Gbagbo was on the point of doing a deal which would have allowed him to go and lecture at Boston University, he talked to his wife Simone (still detained in northern Côte d’Ivoire) who stiffened his resistance, and the deal broke down. Odinga related how, when Gbagbo was found in the presidential bunker and asked if his wife should accompany him, said “No! Take her far away from me! I don’t want to see her”.

The Summit was the occasion of two advertisement-oriented supplements which carried material on subjects known to be central to the interests of the business community in London, such as infrastructure, but above all mining, especially oil and gas. By coincidence, over in Paris the same day the daily Le Monde carried a two-page intensively researched feature on the same subject selling largely the same up-beat message.

One of the major stories generated by the London conference may have had one eye on local elections in Britain the same week. The Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening (who had reluctantly accepted the post last year following the enforced departure of the significantly more pro-aid Andrew Mitchell) made a bold statement to the conference that Britain’s relatively small amount of assistance to South Africa would be phased out by 2015. This undoubtedly was pitched to those in the Conservative Party and their right-wing challengers UKIP who have been calling for an end to the ring-fence that David Cameron has placed around development aid, and which has already been seriously threatened.

The argument struck some chords in South Africa and elsewhere because aid, it is argued, should be working for its own elimination, or so we have been led to believe, although the armies of personnel employed by the aid industry would not have it so. The British appear to be blaming the South Africans, but should one also not fault the poor intelligence of the Secretary of State or her aides, who thought that discussing the matter with South Africa’s finance ministry without also involving the foreign ministry, for political cover, was enough.

To me, this is a false debate arising from too many people still being stuck in a Blair/Geldof time-warp believing that Africa is still the ‘scar on the face of the world’, and that aid is charity when in fact it is a ‘soft-power’ extension of foreign policy. Both Blair and Geldof (who spoke with his usual verve at the Summit) are now into eulogising African entrepreneurship from their respective business bases. Which is why Africa should beware of too much care and attention being lavished in this manner. As Nurudeen Farah, the Somali writer, wrote in his novel Gifts, “No gifts are innocent.”

KAYE WHITEMAN

From London

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