NAIROBI — On September 17 thousands attended a rally in New York’s Central Park in favour of protecting the civilians of Darfur and sending United Nations peacekeepers. Meanwhile, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir agreed that the African Union (AU) peacekeepers could stay, but no UN force will be allowed into the country to place Sudan under a trusteeship. "The UN forces have a hidden agenda in Sudan because they are not coming for peace in Darfur. They want to recolonise Sudan," Bashir told the media. "Sudan was the first African country south of the Sahara to get independence. We are not ready to be the first to be recolonised."
The Western media has been indignant at al-Bashir’s intransigence. But even if they do not like the Khartoum government, language like this strikes a chord with Africans. They ask why is it only now that the Western public has become aware of the disaster in Darfur which has been building up for three to five years, with 2.5 million people in camps, and 400,000 dead (figure commonly accepted by NGOs)? Huge numbers of these camp inmates are suffering from malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis and malnutrition. The aid agencies are understaffed and cannot cope. Many women and girls are the object of sexual assault; the incidence of AIDS is high.
Why has the world media also ignored two nearby humanitarian disasters: the civil war in northern and eastern Uganda, with its thousands of abducted children and swollen refugee camps, and the civil war in eastern Congo where 4 million people have died of starvation, disease and in the fighting in the last 18 years? The ignorance of most of the outside world regarding Africa is appalling. Victorians Britain in some ways had a better knowledge and understanding of Africa than the internet generation. Why is an old lady with her 100 cats in a bed-sitter in Chelsea news and the 4 million in the Congo are not?
Why has al-Bashir rejected the blue helmets? Possibly the Sudanese government has its own agenda for this dry region in the west of the huge country. The area has copper and may have other mineral, and possibly oil. President al-Bashir interprets a heightened interest by the West in his country as a danger signal. He is not being stupid when he speaks of trusteeships: Sudan had this status until 50 years ago and the trustees were not always benign.
Africans’ fear of loss of sovereignty has grown ever stronger since the end of the Cold War. It is generally agreed that World Bank policies for the most part have made the poorest Africans poorer. Speak with the average man in the street, and he will tell you that Africans do not want the West meddling in their affairs. They do not need the World Bank and the IMF; they do not want political interference. In some areas they do need aid money, such as humanitarian projects, but they want to see that money reaching the beneficiaries.
American policies in the Middle East are viewed with great suspicion, especially in Muslim countries. Rightly or wrongly the Sudanese, like most Africans, see the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the gaggle of other international organisations who tour the continent as fronts for the US. Therefore, many Sudanese view the presence of UN troops as an excuse to assert Western power rather than a way of averting a humanitarian catastrophe.
They have not forgotten the day in 1998 when Bill Clinton sent a cruise missile to destroy a chemical plant in Khartoum. Such grievances do not heal easily. Furthermore, the Sudanese government resents the ingratitude of the West. A trade embargo is in place and Sudan is still considered a terrorist state by the US State Department. Yet the government has been cooperating with the CIA; it has been liberalising some laws regarding non-Muslims in the capital. The country is trying to modernise and it has been one of the rare World Bank successes in Africa.
It is understandable that some Western countries feel a duty to intervene, partly to protect their own interests and partly out of genuine concern for vulnerable groups. Some may also think they have a duty towards former colonies, but this can smack of paternalism. Most African countries have been independent for 45 years or so. A 45-year old man does not need the attentions of a doting parent any longer. Perhaps a hint or a small correction now and then. But even in Africa a 45-year old man can correct a father when he indulges in drink, to the eventual ruin of the family. Yet Africa has to keep quiet at Western abuses if they want the West’s continued support in world forums.
It is significant that al-Bashir is prepared to allow the AU troops to remain. Perhaps he believes they can will do very little. Even so this has to be the way forward. Peace arrived in Sierra Leone and Liberia after African troops arrived. Africans prefer to see their disputes settled by themselves or their fellow Africans, who understand the situation first hand. The African Union forces, if better organised, trained and more numerous, could do a good job, and would allay any suspicions of outside interference since even the countries that were most pro-Communist or pro-Western during the Cold War now assert their independence from any superpower, and trade equally with the US, the EU, China or Japan — like the rest of the world.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.