• Friday, February 23, 2024
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Old Year, New Year


Although it is sometimes hard to pigeonhole a year into a particular type of experience, the year just passed was one of particular uncertainties making prophecies as to what may happen in the next especially problematic. Already in November, this column took a sentiment expressed by the esteemed Lord Malloch Brown, speaking at the Annual General Meeting of the Business council for Africa, that the situation in the continent was ambiguous. The prospects in many respects were most encouraging, especially in terms of growth, governance, democracy and the rise of the middle class, but it was better to stay with the Afro-realism of Mo Ibrahim.

Much of what has happened in the past two months confirm that it is better at the moment to show sensible caution, while still taking advantage of current opportunities. On New Years Eve, despite the best mediation efforts of neighbouring heads of state the new Republic of South Sudan seemed intent on self-destruction, while next door in Central African Republic, as explored in last week’s column was also beset by the feuding of violent militias, labelled Christian and Muslim, but the product of social, ethnic and political aggravations against a background of poverty, underdevelopment and failed government.

The double-edged nature of the year extended to the whole international scene. Since the year’s end is a time to search for deeper trends, one feels entitled to observe that the West (notably the US and the EU) is trying to convince itself that it can achieve recovery and return to the status quo ante the crash of 2008. This may prove illusory, however, because of the change in the world balance of economic power, plus accelerated technological change and its social consequences, which may make Western recovery more complicated. The ambiguities are felt here too – such as the clash between the understandable preoccupation with growth, and the increasing concern on the part of environmentalists for the survival of the planet as we know it (inevitably global warming comes in here too). This is part of the wider philosophical divide between the pressures of globalisation (fed by technological change) and its reactive counterpart, the quest for ethnic and religious identity which sometimes leads those engaged in the quest down the paths of obscurantism.

In the long view of history we may well come to see Barack Obama’s presidency as the first real attempt by an American President to come to terms with America’s position in the world, as the sole super-power no longer.  Bearing in mind his Nobel Peace Prize, he is likely to be seen be seen as a pacifier rather than a warrior. Of course he has all along been at the centre of the industrial-military complex, now covered by that all-purpose word ‘security’ and he was truly blooded by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, for all the good it did. But actions such as the persistent attempts to do a deal with Iran, his disengagement from Afghanistan, and his lack of enthusiasm for interventions in Libya and Syria, show where his hearty is placed.

This was most evident in his handsome eulogy for Nelson Mandela, whose passing was one of the major events of 2013. In terms of what Mandela had come to stand for it surpassed the significance by far of those other two departures of the year, Thatcher and Chavez, both of whom left an indelible mark on history for good or ill. Thatcher, even if bitterly controversial, still showed what could be done with steely determination. Chavez (who barely figured in assessments of the year) symbolised the aspiration in a whole continent to see change in its tormented relations with the US. The Obama handshake with Raul Castro at the Mandela funeral was a token indication of how the US President has taken on board Mandela’s philosophy of healing.

It was appropriate that the film of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom should be shown at the time of his going, and copies of the book were selling copiously, I am moved to quote here from the last chapter:

I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. That is when I joined the African National Congress, and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was this desire….that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney into a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home , that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedom I was allowed when I knew my people were not free…”

By: Kaye Whiteman