Thursday, December 06, 2007

The businessmen and the people

Now that CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) is now usually described as a ‘process’, all of us hacks that try to take it seriously, and aspire to be Commonwealth specialists, have to take some note of the fringe activities around the central set-piece of the summit itself.

Your diarist targeted the two main shows in town – the Forum of the Commonwealth Business Council (at the Sheraton) and the Peoples Forum at the Hotel Africana. The art form of trying to follow both at the same time and making intuitively judicious choices about which sessions to attend in both meetings – it was clearly impossible to take in the Youth Forum out at a beach resort near Entebbe on Lake Victoria.

The holding of the Business Forum has been a tradition since the CBC was set up in 1997.

Then while the CHOGM was in Edinburgh, the CBF was in London, just as in 1999 the CHOGM was in Durban and the CBF in Johannesburg. That in Australia in 2001 was scrapped because of the 9/11 disaster, but the forum in Abuja in 2003 was hugely successful, attracting a number of Commonwealth leaders as speakers, and Malta was also an important milestone. All of them have been very much the handiwork of Mohan Kaul, Director-General from the beginning, whose benevolent presiding spirit this year was made more poignant by his gallantly doomed outsider attempt to become Commonwealth Secretary general (see last week’s Diary).

India’s Asian "Fifth Column"

This CBF in Kampala, however, has been the best yet in terms of attendance, with more than 900 participants, although one or two London participants felt that this time it had slightly misfired. But then how do you judge an event that is mostly presentation and networking, rather than the venue for huge deals. What was impressive was that more than half were East Africans.

There were, I was told more Kenyans than Ugandans, and probably more Asians than any other group.

The Asian presence is back in Uganda (after the expulsions by Idi Amin some thirty-five years ago. Many are involved in some of Kampala’s new projects including CHOGM hotels, and even the celebrated tycoon Madhvani could be spotted at the Business Forum. There are some new Asians in Uganda, who, I was told, come mainly from the Indian sub-continent itself, although there were a surprising number of Asian UK residents who are also developing (or re-developing) business connections. One observer even suggested to me that the Asians in Africa were a "fifth column" for India in its efforts to compete with the Chinese.

Museveni and transforming Societies

I caught part of the CBF opening ceremony, mainly to hear President Yoweri Museveni enlarging on his favourite subject, which was also the theme of the CHOGM, the transformation of societies.

His preoccupation with how African countries can heed the example of the way Malaysia developed in forty years where countries in Africa that had been at the same level as Malaysia had sunk behind, was constantly recurring, both at the CBF and in the CHOGM itself, as well as at every one of his news conferences, although it is hard to see that rural societies can be scaled down as quickly as he seems to have in mind. Some had doubts that this was a good idea anyway.

New breeze out of Freetown

There was a small west African presence (three Nigerians a couple of Ghanaians), although I was lucky to hear the new Sierra Leone Finance Minister David Carew talking about "Strengthening the Investment Climate in Emerging Markets: the Sierra Leone Experience".

Although there had been a change of government, the minister seemed anxious not to openly indict the previous regime, noting that since the end of the "brutal civil conflict" in January 2002, "substantial progress has been made in maintaining political and economic stability". After speaking about continuing the Poverty Reduction Strategy of his predecessors, he noted that the new government had reinforced the powers of the Anti-Corruption Commission established in 2000, and outlined aspects of the current reform programme.

It was good to catch the fresh new breeze coming out of Freetown, confirmed by Carew’s President, Ernest Bai Koroma, also addressed the CBF’s Gala Lunch stressing how far his country had come since the end of "our rebel war" and advance to democracy.

His recent election, in which the ruling party had been voted out, had been a "landmark in the history of Sierra Leone" which underpinned its democracy. And, on the Forum’s theme of "untapped potential, he said he wanted to make Sierra Leone "the most investment friendly country in West Africa".

Sir John, Dr Chris, and the EPAs

Readers of this diary will know of its particular interest in following commonwealth views on the controversial Economic Partnership agreements (EPAs) which the EU has been pressing on the African Caribbean and Pacific Group, and which had been the subject of a strong statement at the Malta CHOGM in 2005.

This time round discussion seemed muted, perhaps because the issue is now in its terminal stage, with several partial EPAS already being signed by some in east and southern Africa, meeting the deadline of December 31 which the EU is seeking to impose, not without some bad feeling. The session at the CBF was not especially illuminating, as the ACP Secretary-General, Papua-New Guinean Sir John Kaputin, who has been known to be outspoken on the subject delivered a particularly muted paper, so low-key it as almost below the radar screen.

Also, the indication that the East African Community had signed up to an EPA broken in the session created a certain misleading euphoria, encouraged by some businessmen stressing the positive advantage of "opening markets".

I would have been better off attending the trade session at the People’s Forum (organised by Makerere Business School) to hear Chris Stevens of the Overseas Development Institute in London, the world’s greatest living expert on EPAs and all their ramifications. Alas, my ‘judicious intuition’ let me down.

Meanwhile, down at the peoples’ forum….

In general at the People’s Forum the flame of discussion burned with a much greater intensity, with every session sharpening its points to be included in a strongly worded communique duly presented to the heads at CHOGM itself (although I wonder how much attention the leaders paid). I spent some time at the series of sessions on human rights where Zimbabwe inevitably figured prominently, as civil society feels strongly that the Commonwealth has a continued responsibility for the people of Zimbabwe even if it is out of the Commonwealth. There was a hotly argued discussion of the Commonwealth’s seventeen years of election monitoring, which some participants felt was giving fig-leaves to unacceptable regimes, and also a long and realistic discussion on how civil society can engage with the police, and some individual protests, such as from Ghanaians drawing attention to the continuing problem of the killing in the Gambia of forty-eight fishermen apparently on the orders of the Gambian president. And to bring a local flavour, there was a lady representative of the kingdom of Bunyoro, who presented at length a case against the activities of British colonialists in the 1980s. I read later in a local newspaper that Bunyoro (whose King boycotted the Queen’s banquet for Commonwealth leaders) says it is going to the International Criminal Court to sue the British for five trillion pounds compensation for the injustices.

The boldness of Bunmi

A word of commendation for the Nigerian journalist Bunmi Akpata-Ohohe. She who once was an occasional thorn in my side at West Africa for her outspoken views and forthright manner has lost none of her boldness. She deployed her skills on Chairman/President Museveni at one of his press conferences, asking him outright whether Uganda was a militaristic society. A seasoned old fox, he took it in his stride, but it seemed to offend one or two other journalists there, who found it rude. Rude? They don’t know our Bunmi.

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