When the Australian High Commissioner to Kenya, George Atkin, began some research for a pamphlet to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, he had to admit defeat.
“People could not come up with a single important event involving Kenya and Australia that had occurred in the past four decades,” he told a recent meeting of the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
The best he could come up with in the files was a picture of former Australian governor general Lord Casey and the first president of an independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta. “It would have made a good front cover, but unfortunately there was really nothing to put inside,” he said.
Mr Atkin’s discovery highlights a gap in Australia’s foreign relations. This country has historic and still extremely viable links with Europe: it has carefully cultivated ties with the United States and largely through that has become heavily involved in the current Middle East imbroglio. It has become more aware of its neighbourhood in South-East Asia in recent years and is courting the emerging economic giants of China and India for their value as trading partners.
Africa, at least since the end of apartheid, has dropped off the radar screen, interest restricted to rugby and cricket and the occasional sensation, as was the case with the disappearance of African athletes at the recent Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. We receive blow-by-blow accounts of the violence in Iraq (how many times have we been told that country is slipping into civil war) but actual civil war on the African continent, together with famine, disease and the outrageous actions of some of its leaders go, with one or two notable exceptions, largely unreported.
In East Africa this official neglect comes at a time when people-to-people relationships are getting steadily stronger. White and Indian Kenyans favour Australia as an immigration destination, and the rising middle classes see this country as a good place to send their children for education - safe and less costly than Britain or the United States.
Kenya and Tanzania have abundant natural resources which Australian companies are helping to tap; Ethiopia and Eritrea have small but influential communities here, while Australia continues to take a share of refugees still streaming out of war-torn and famine-stricken Somalia and Sudan.
However, there is a much more important reason why Australia should be involving itself more intimately with this part of Africa. Increasingly, the nations of the region seem to be arriving at a tipping point where their prospects as democratic and active participants in the global community or as authoritarian anti-Western regimes are equally balanced.
Kenya is struggling with endemic corruption and a sense of disillusionment with the government of President Mwai Kibaki, but it has progressed from a despotic, one-party state to a multi-party democracy with a free and active media; Uganda has stabilised under the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but his insistence on not relinquishing office after two terms and his manipulation of the constitution to allow him to stay on, raises concern of a slide back into authoritarianism; while some progress has been made towards free institutions in Tanzania, it essentially remains a one-party state.
Ethiopia and Eritrea are still dogged by armed conflict while Somalia remains a chaotic patchwork of rival warlords, without any real form of national government.
The big picture is essentially grim. The former British colonies in East Africa came to independence in the 1960s with gross domestic products not dissimilar from Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, yet as their Asian counterparts pushed steadily ahead to raise the living standards of their populations, the Africans sank back into a quagmire of inefficiency, corruption and self-pity. It is still not unusual for African leaders to blame their own shortcomings on the legacy of a colonialism which ended four decades ago.
In 2007 there remains a significant danger that terrorist organisations, looking for fresh bases from which to launch their attacks on the West, could settle on East Africa; especially if the nations that make up this part of the world should feel the West had largely abandoned them.
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