What Africa Should Learn from WikiLeaks

2011-01-24

Berouk Mesfin, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, Addis Ababa

The controversial organisation WikiLeaks has, over the past three years, made a variety of classified documents available online. These include thousands of US military documents pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as politically charged documents concerning the disquieting spread of corruption in Kenya and the deadly dumping of toxic chemical waste in Côte d’Ivoire. More recently and in a previously unimaginable manner, the website started disseminating 251,287 diplomatic cables sent from and to nearly 270 US embassies and consulates.

Many Africans had the opportunity to read through these cables and study the information that they contain about how the US, the lone superpower since 1991, assesses political developments around the world and interacts with other states behind closed doors. They had the opportunity to get what a British commentator described in the Guardian as ‘a deep sense of priorities, character, thought patterns’ in US secret diplomacy. 

It will probably take many years and even decades before the real lessons contained in these informative cables may be drawn. However, African governments and citizens should at least begin to reflect and learn preliminary but valuable lessons from the contents and the style of these informative cables.

In the first place, the cables shed light on both the challenging task and undeniable professionalism of US diplomats. Indeed, the cables showed how effectively US diplomats develop and maintain personal contacts with a wide range of local sources and officials. US diplomats also aptly identify issues likely to be of interest and know them first-hand and in sufficient depth. The cables also showed how consummately US diplomats supply the analyses needed to enable US policy makers to better understand complex political occurrences and to try to more quickly respond to violent conflicts.

An important lesson for African governments is that they should integrate in their foreign services and diplomatic missions multitalented and experienced professionals able to maintain regular diplomatic networks, gather the most timely and pertinent information, carefully analyse the information and write concise and concrete reports. Even the Indian Foreign Service had the temerity to tell its diplomats to learn from the surprising mélange of brevity, clarity and objectivity of the leaked US diplomatic cables.

Secondly, the leaked cables showed how US policy engagement with Africa is particularly developed and coordinated. They revealed that, at first, diplomats systematically collect relevant and predetermined information. Two astonishing leaked cables signed by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton outlined the vast area of collection needs for the Great Lakes and the Sahel.

These needs include political agendas, institutional priorities, biographic information on key figures, decision-making processes, perceptions, consequential external influence and estimates of possible actions under different scenarios. Then, US diplomats write succinct reports which US policy makers mine for information that they can use to develop policies shaping the continent’s politics for years to come.

Thirdly, the released diplomatic cables do contain significant details about the innermost secrets of political leaders, the treacherous power plays and ongoing conflicts in Africa. Some of the cables revealed the paranoia and decay of Eritrea’s oppressive government, the well-known eccentricities of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the less-known but ever-increasing drug trafficking in Ghana and Guinea.

Other cables exposed Kenya’s interference in Somalia’s internal politics, the under-the-table dealings of oil companies in Nigeria and African leaders’ grotesque ties with France. Many cables also made public details of high-level corruption in states such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Senegal, Gabon and Sudan.

Cables from the US embassy in Tunis described Tunisia as ‘a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems’. They reported the persistence of ‘fictional rule of law, unpopular and corrupt practices of aging President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his extended family, the population’s frustrations over high unemployment and regional inequities’.

These truly original cables also stressed the fact that ‘Ben Ali and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people’. The cables reproachfully indicated that ‘corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is growing’. The result was a backlash with, to paraphrase the famous singer Tracy Chapman, the Tunisian people recently ‘rising up to take what’s theirs’.  

Fourthly, it seems that the damning contents of the cables have not disrupted current US diplomatic work and double-dealing in Africa. Actually, only time and future US performance will tell if the cables’ release has damaged US secret diplomacy on the continent. The release will, however, affect the egos of some indignant African political leaders and their perceptions of US diplomats. It could also temporarily strain US relations with some African governments which may become less forthcoming to future US engagements and communications.  

US diplomats may also be less able to maintain working relationships with their many local contacts and their long-standing European partners who may all become less disposed to share any confidential information out of fear of future leaks of classified documents. All in all, the release could make it harder, but not impossible, for the US to smoothly manage political situations and pursue its foreign policy objectives in Africa.  

Finally, all things considered, international relations will continue to be the incessant struggle among selfishly motivated states. And, diplomats will continue to be at the forefront of this struggle. They engage in their non-altruistic tradecraft which the British commentator in the Guardian aptly portrayed as ‘finding out what is happening in the places to which they are posted, working to advance their nation’s interests and their government’s policies’.

For better or worse, no mass dumping of classified documents by WikiLeaks – leaks come and go – will change this reality. Everything will go back to normal and US diplomats, discredited but undaunted, will continue to go to great lengths to collect information of the utmost importance, write the frankest assessments and only pursue the most vital of US interests without much concern for the interests of other states. 

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