Why Africa now relies on Arnold Schwarzenegger
Popcorn politics is doing more good for Africa than all the talk coming out of Davos.
I ONCE went for dinner at the British embassy in Khartoum. The walls were hung with oil paintings, the gin was iced, and the velvety interior suggested a Belgravia drawing room. Not far away, women held bone-thin babies who would die soon. Britain’s then ambassador to Sudan knew little of such scenes. He did not seem to get out much. No doubt communications have improved.
No one need to move far now to witness desolation. Hollywood loves Africa and almost every multiplex is showing one or more lament on civil war. Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland, the two latest examples, have gathered Oscar nominations and plaudits for their assault on Western consciences. Both also carry an unmeant subtext of exploitation.
Like The Constant Gardener, they depict an Africa whose job it is to kill, to suffer, and to supply a backdrop for a white man’s odyssey. The Last King, offers the tale of a Scottish doctor caught up with Idi Amin. Blood Diamond, set in Sierra Leone, is the vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio and enough military hardware to provoke envy in any ordnance-starved general in today’s Afghanistan.
Still, there is much to be said for the popcorn branch of foreign policy. Blood Diamond has sent a shiver through a gem industry that has offered Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Lopez $10,000 each for charity to flaunt sparkling rings and repel any public-relations disaster. Although Sierra Leone, like most exporters, has cleaned up its trade, conflict diamonds worth $23 million recently reached international markets from the Ivory Coast. Consumers will ask more questions and Global Witness, the charity that publicises the link between natural resources and war, is justly proud.
Tony Blair must have wished, as he spoke in Davos on Saturday, that he had a film star’s power. At the World Economic Forum, he reported progress since Gleneagles and placed the continent at the top of his agenda. On Darfur, there was no good news. It was, Mr. Blair said, “a scandal, not a problem.”
An estimated 400,000 have died there and thousands more face genocide. Aid agencies are on the brink of leaving after the murder and rape of staff by the government-backed janjaweed militia and rebel groups. Moves to get U.N. peacekeepers in to help the existing African Union contingent have been frustrated by President Bashir, who has reportedly bombed villages in the last few days. The response is international silence. No one is queuing to make a film about Darfur.
Sudan’s leader does not take kindly to scrutiny. Mr. Blair was uncertain, on the eve of his Davos speech, about how tough to sound. Is this the moment for the West to tell Mr. Bashir that he must make good his promises or face the consequences? Mr. Blair’s eventual call for better peacekeeping institutions will do little for those whose lives are measured in days or hours.
In September last year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law forbidding the State’s investment, including its huge public pension funds, in firms dealing with Sudan.
Last week, German technologies group Siemens pulled out of Sudan, citing moral grounds. The British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently urged British businesses to do likewise and Sudan Divestment U.K. is targeting firms such as Rolls Royce. When I rang the company to ask if it was planning to withdraw, it emailed back to say that its exports were “fully consistent with the relevant export control regulations and help the development of Sudan, so that it has the ability to meet the economic and social needs of its population.” I took that as a “no.”
When Hollywood and industry have such sway, world leaders should cringe at their own lack of progress in Darfur. Despite U.S. and British oratory, and the advocacy of charities such as Oxfam, the blood still flows, the bombs still fall, and Europe looks the other way.
Europe must lead the way in demanding a no-fly zone and an arms embargo. Sanctions are vital to a political solution and getting more peacekeepers on the ground. But when politicians prevaricate, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has hit the ground dithering, there is also a case for pressuring big business.
A region is close to annihilation at the hands of violence and inertia, the twin agents of genocide. In Darfur, there may soon be no lucky people left. If nothing is done, then in 10 years’ time, a film crew might resurrect its ghost villages and deserted farms. And people of good conscience and short memory will buy their tickets and vow to change the world as they weep over what need not have been.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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