It is becoming increasingly obvious that elected African leaders have been neutralized as players on the world stage.

Amir Yechieli is a 60-something Israeli science schoolteacher. When a Jerusalem school was flooded by rain, he devised a means of harvesting rainwater from the rooftop, straining it of impurities, and storing it for piping. So successful is his technology, he now exports it abroad (funded by organizations such as the Rotary Club). Makerere University in Kampala is one of his clients; with a $30,000 outlay, they hope to reduce considerably their $15,000 monthly water bill. Other clients are the 600 inhabitants of a Kenyan village and a school in Haiti.

Israel’s courtship of Africa dates back to 1902 when, redolent of melodrama, Theodor Herzl lamented the lot of the African, “the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different…. [O]nce I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my own people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”[1]

In 1959, Golda Meir co-opted the argument: “We are going to send out to the new African states scores, even hundreds, thousands of Israeli experts of every sort—technologists, scientists, doctors, engineers, teachers, agronomists, irrigation experts … to unselfishly share their know-how with the African people. So now you understand why Africa is an emotional thing for me?”

When asked by a Foreign Service staffer[2] whether Israel should expect any political capital, such as UN votes, in return for extending assistance to newly independent African countries, Meir came back to earth and answered, “Of course I am hoping for something in return, but I won’t say so in public.”[3]

In Gaza, 76.5 kilometers down the road from Jerusalem where Yechieli is based, over 90% of the water is not potable.[4] Water from aquifers located in Palestine is diverted to supply Israel faster than it can be safely replenished, leading to unsafe levels of chemical deposits. In fact, Gaza is in dire need of medicine and technology of every kind, but mainly it needs the occupation to end and the demolition of infrastructure to stop. Charles Dickens coined the phrase ‘telescopic philanthropy’ to describe the phenomenon he observed amongst the Victorians of helping those in distant Africa at the expense of their next-door neighbors living in the worst of times, whose needs were just as great.

In the event, Meir’s estimate of profitability proved correct; Israel’s investment of technical and military assistance was lost after the Yom Kippur War over which she presided in 1973. Twenty-nine out of 30 African states broke relations with Israel between June 12, 1967, and November 13, 1973.[5] Many also gave the PLO diplomatic status.

These states included Chad, which was reportedly galvanized by the promise of a loan of $92 billion from Libya and publicly recognized “the just, armed fight of the Palestinian people for the liberation of their territory occupied by Israel.” Mali, a recipient of Israeli technical assistance since independence, was particularly abrupt in severing relations with Israel (with immediate effect) and forthright in stating its reasons for doing so: air-raids on Arab countries, occupation of Arab lands, and failure to adhere to UN resolutions. Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Congo and Uganda, all aid recipients, also broke off ties.[6]

In the 21st century, Israel is still almost alone in the UN on the question of the Palestinian existential crisis; Africa votes consistently with most of the rest of the world at the annual debate on the question of Palestine for Israel’s withdrawal from Occupied Territory and Israel’s cessation of settlement activity. Yet the Israeli charm offensive in Africa continues apace and diplomatic relations have been firmly established with 39 of the 47 countries south of the Sahara.

The only remaining question is why, apart from voting in Palestine’s favor in the UN, Africa has tolerated Israel’s periodic attacks on Gaza and failed through the Africa Union to call for an embargo, as it did with apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia.

Apartheid was successfully defeated with the material support of the Front Line States of the Organization of African Unity, which provided passports, training grounds to exiled anti-apartheid activists, funds, refuge for their families, and other concrete forms of support. Vocal opposition never ceased and was ably articulated by leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah (in his now famous speech to the General Assembly[7] and for which he paid dearly).

Africa is largely politically independent, although economically hamstrung in a web of international loans. However, if economic dependence did not dampen the young Organization for African Unity’s zeal for justice, it is unlikely it would do so now. There must be another explanation for their quiescence.

While in the immediate post-Independence period UN voting patterns were important in influencing foreign policy in matters such as dismantling apartheid, it is not the case today. The US’s now full and almost obsequious support of Israel guarantees any votes in favor of Palestine will be vetoed and therefore innocuous.

Currently aggressive states need only grant aid to states that might oppose their actions, and recipients of aid will limit their opposition to politically correct votes in the General Assembly. For example, in the case of Israel, no African state has announced a boycott, regardless of the extremes to which it has taken its expansionism in Palestine.  The call has come from a South African Parliamentary Solidarity Conference opened by Ahmed Kathrada, in a statement[8] consistent with the values of the anti-apartheid movement. The AU council of ministers has reportedly agreed on a proposed boycott but it remains to be seen if it comes to fruition.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that elected African leaders have been neutralized as players on the world stage. A month into the attack on Gaza in 2014, the best the African Union (AU) could do was announce that it was ‘following with concern developments’ in Palestine and Israel, ‘deplore the outbreak of hostilities’, ‘urge’ the Palestinians to cease their resistance in the form of projectile and border attacks, and call on Israel to stop all forms of aggression. They ended by urging the Security Council to work for peace.

Richard Falk described  solidarity with Palestine as ‘the most salient moral cause of our time’—one might add: as the anti-apartheid struggle was in its time. Yet AU Commission Chairperson Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, herself a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, referred to the Occupation which has brought Palestine to its knees and for which the General Assembly voted to extend humanitarian assistance in 2014, simply as a ‘restriction of movement.’ Had the ANC received such a genteel response after Sharpeville or the Soweto Uprising, it would have taken Dlamini Zuma longer to become Chairperson of the AU Commission or of anything else for that matter.

With the African Union now prematurely senile, it is no wonder it is unable to match the uncompromising stance of Nkrumah, or even that of a woman with no personal experience of oppression: Lady Fisher, wife of the 99th Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote to the Times in 1968: “When French men and women formed themselves into resistance groups to embarrass the German forces occupying their land, we hailed them (quite rightly, I believe) as heroes and heroines. Why therefore must Arabs, who try to do the same thing against enemy forces occupying their land be referred to as ‘terrorists’ and ‘saboteurs’? Surely they are only doing what brave men always do….”[9]

‘What is Africa’s Problem?’ is a perennial topic debated on the Continent. The answer is: its leaders. Corrupted by their ability to help themselves to the Continent’s natural wealth in the knowledge the shortfall will be made up for by foreign loans and grants, they no longer speak for African aspirations and values. Ordinary Africans, once a dignified and resourceful people, are now too preoccupied and exhausted to focus on anything much beyond inadequate piped water, power outages, insufficient schools and school fees, high maternal and infant mortality, land-grabbing and other Third World realities.

The complicity of Western governments in undermining what was an important deterrent to State vandalism is clear. Otherwise, how is it that in spite of annual IMF and World Bank oversight visits and ordinary commercial bank regulations, Mobutu, Abacha and their ilk could have smuggled out and deposited the billions of dollars of state funds now being discovered in foreign banks? How is it that recently the wife of a sitting head of state was detained only briefly at an American East Coast airport in possession of vast amounts of hard currency? It is more likely the donors (or development partners as they like to be called) achieve the access they have always sought to minerals, land, military base rights, and other resources through these tacit private exchanges with the strongmen they create.


[1] Yehuda Avner, A jilted love affair in Africa 02/08/2006 22:12 Jerusalem Post

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] B’Tselem website, 9 February 2014

[5] Gitelson, Israels African Setback in Perspective cited by Mitchell G. Bard, The Evolution of Israels Africa Policy

[6] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976 Volume E–6, Documents on Africa, 1973–1976, Document 2

[7] on 23rd September 1960.

[8] Middle East Monitor, Monday, 10 February 2014

[9] Cited by Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organisation website.