Malawi's expulsion of British diplomat signals Africa's tense ties with West

Tense Britain-Malawi relations are symptomatic of how African nations are increasingly intolerant of Western criticism as China steps up its no-pressure approach to aid and trade.

Malawi's president on Sunday defended his decision to expel Britain's senior envoy, a move symptomatic of how African governments are increasingly prickly toward criticism from the West.

In his first statement on the issue, President Bingu wa Mutharika told reporters that he would not take insults from Britain, including former envoy Fergus Cochrane-Dyet's statement in a leaked diplomatic cable that the president is “intolerant of criticism" – which led to his April 26 expulsion. The president's spokesman had previously explained that "the tone in the leaked cable was not diplomatic."

Mr. Mutharika's intolerance for being criticized as intolerant is more than mere irony, with potential consequences for the 75 percent of Malawi's population that lives on less than $1 a day. Britain, which gives $154 million per year, is Malawi's largest aid donor, and promptly expelled Malawi's high commission to the UK in response.

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Tiffs between Africa and the West are in no short supply these days. Kenya's spokesman recently said it was "malicious" for the US ambassador to call the government “a swamp of flourishing corruption” in a statement leaked by WikiLeaks. Uganda's president has so far ignored US criticism over repressive tactics and voting irregularities in the April election.

Some African leaders revel in criticism, of course. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has repeatedly told his Western critics to “go and hang,” saying he does not need lectures on human rights from former colonial oppressor Britain. Last year, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda briefly threatened withdrawing his peacekeeping forces from the African Union's mission in Sudan’s Darfur region, after a UN report found that Mr. Kagame’s troops had slaughtered thousands of Rwandan Hutus who had fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo after the 1994 genocide of Kagame’s own Tutsi tribe.

In December, former President Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast ordered UN peacekeepers in his country to leave, before being forcibly removed from the presidential palace by Ivorian forces himself in a civil war that may have killed thousands. Mr. Gbagbo lost elections under UN and African-Union monitored elections Nov. 28, 2010, and now faces trial in his own country for human rights violations.

Gbagbo’s close associate, Charles Ble Goude, now wanted for the deaths of hundreds of Ivorians at the hands of his personal militia, told reporters that any intervention, particularly one by Ivory Coast’s former French colonial masters, would be strongly resisted. "If Sarkozy plans military intervention, he’d better be ready to kill a lot of Ivorians," Mr. Ble Goude said at a Dec. 18 rally.

It is just this kind of drama that many African leaders would like to avoid, of course. And it's these types of tiffs that are pushing African nations to do business with more accommodating trading partners such as China, which refuses to make its aid or investment conditional on small matters like international human rights treaties, anticorruption rules, or legal frameworks that allow opposition groups and news organizations to criticize their government leaders.

China’s investment in Africa – estimated to be $100 billion in 2010 – is the fastest growing sector of foreign investment, and few are the African leaders who will turn down the offer of Chinese built roads or electrical power stations in return for access to an African country’s rich natural resources.

South Africa, which in April joined the economic club known as BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and now South Africa – is keen to use this partnership to the fullest. And while it tends to keep its spats with the West quiet, South African President Jacob Zuma makes it clear that the West will have to change the way it does business in Africa, or else simply miss out on opportunities.

"You can no longer talk about the old Africa," President Zuma said at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town on May 5. "We need to develop very urgently partnerships that are different from the past – relationships that benefit Africa more."

That's a different way of saying, “go and hang.”

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