WikiLeaks documents roil Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa

Embarrassing US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have put leaders in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa in the hot seat.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP Photo/Newscom
View of the WikiLeaks homepage taken in Washington on November 28.

(Editor's Note: The original version of this blog of Dec. 7, 2010, misstated the nature of the extradition request for Julian Assange. Mr. Assange was arrested by British authorities to make him available for questioning to Swedish judicial authorities on allegations of rape and sexual assault against Assange.)

Africa’s newspapers are full of the latest leaked US diplomatic cables, focusing especially on those about the political leaders of their own countries and regions. As with other leaks, these came courtesy of the embattled web organization, WikiLeaks, whose founder, Julian Assange, was recently arrested in London to answer questions over allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden. 

Some of the cables are crucial for piecing together parts of very well-known public events while others give almost novelistic detail about the cocktail-chatter world of US diplomacy, and the personalities of the political allies and rivals living in the countries where the diplomats were posted.

Some of these cables will be acutely embarrassing for host governments and US diplomats alike, like an all-too-frank best-man’s speech at a wedding. But for that very reason, these cables are likely to be widely read and unlikely forgotten.

Kenya arming South Sudan?

Consider the analysis in a cable dated Oct. 2, 2008, regarding the hijacking of a ship carrying 33 Ukrainian T-72 tanks, captured by (who else) Somali pirates off the coast of Kenya.

Since the ship was bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa, the Kenyan government claimed that the ships were meant for the Kenyan military, even though Kenya uses NATO equipment, not Warsaw Pact equipment. The Oct. 2 cable says, “It is a poorly kept secret that the tanks are bound for the Government of South Sudan and that the Government of Kenya has been facilitating shipments from Ukraine to the Government of South Sudan since 2007.”

As for motives on why Kenya would allow arms shipments to South Sudan, and lie about it, the cable considers three possibilities. 1) Kenya has decided to support South Sudan in its bid to secede from the Islamist-led government in Khartoum, but doesn’t want to anger Khartoum. 2) It doesn’t want to appear to be doing something illegal. 3) It is deeply corrupt.

“…given Kenya’s track record on corruption, it is always possible that there is a financial benefit for a senior Kenyan official (or two, or more) in return for facilitating the arms shipments. As such, the question of 'Who owns the tanks?' will remain a touchy side issue for Kenya in the piracy of the M/V Faina.”

Shell 'infiltrated' the Nigerian government?

In Nigeria, papers have been focusing heavily on a cable from the US embassy in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, detailing a meeting between the US ambassador and Shell’s executive vice president for Africa, Ann Pickard. Ms. Pickard apparently indicated that Shell had “seconded” several of its own people to work inside the Nigerian government, and thus had a wide network of contacts to keep them posted on issues that might affect Shell. Nigerian papers termed this “infiltration.”

In one instance, the Nigerian government appeared ready to open up several oil exploration bids to Chinese firms, contracts that Shell was also bidding on.

“Pickard said Shell had good sources to show that their data had been sent to both China and Russia,” the cable read. “She said the GON [Government of Nigeria] had forgotten that Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.”

Eritrea's 'unhinged, cruel' dictator?

Some cables show a disarming level of candor. One document from the US embassy in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, for instance, opens up with this startling sentence.

“Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.”

But more delicate are the cables that describe countries that are “strategic allies,” but whose leadership seem to be what one cable described as a “swamp of corruption.”

Here, when the US government trumpets its own efforts to promote democracy and human rights, it comes as a stinging indictment against a government that itself has a very mixed record on democracy.

Kenya's 'culture of impunity'

In Kenya, for instance, the US embassy in Nairobi has actively supported youth groups to strengthen democracy and to forestall a return of the post-election violence that killed 1,200 people and displaced 300,000 others following the disputed elections of Dec. 27, 2007. The US government also supported efforts by Kenya’s Parliament to write a new Constitution, which would change the winner-takes-all culture of Kenyan politics and reduce the likelihood of future post-election violence.

Far from supporting this US reform agenda, top Kenyan officials actually saw it as a threat, if not to the state, then certainly to their own “vested interests,” says a US embassy cable dated Jan. 12, 2010.

“Bringing about implementation of the reform agenda poses a large challenge because doing so threatens the culture of impunity and the entrenched political class that has existed in Kenya since independence. Most of the political and economic elite (to greater and lesser extents) compose the vested interests that benefit from and support impunity and the lack of accountability with respect to governance, state resources, and the rule of law. This includes President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga, who signed the coalition agreement, as well as most of the members of the Cabinet and leaders of the political parties.”

South Africa's former president 'thin-skinned' and 'shrill'

One US Embassy Pretoria cable, written in February 23, 2001 midway between the two terms of South African President Thabo Mbeki, found the president “thin-skinned” and “shrill” when criticized, but placed Mbeki’s behavior into a broader context of the ANC’s mindset from the long period of struggle against the racist apartheid government.

“Some speculate that Mbeki and the majority of ANC leaders and office holders are still handicapped by the experience of the struggle against apartheid. Then, enemies were everywhere and the world fit very neatly into shades of black and white. Others see Mbeki as an individual who must always be right. When the force of medical and public opinion on the causal link between HIV and AIDS grew too great, Mbeki announced that he was “withdrawing” from the debate rather than admit that he possibly had erred. Mbeki had posited the view that none of the criticisms he has received worries him because he knows they aren’t true…”

Not all of the comments were negative or embarrassing, though.

One of the more interesting comments from the US embassy, following a very lengthy profile of South African President Jacob Zuma, was this one, dated May 12, 2009: “One can only guess how South Africa will evolve under a Zuma presidency -- which he promises will only be for one term. South Africans have suffered many more and greater tragedies than an elected government with a near two-thirds majority.”

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