A fortress made of BRICS

The BRICS countries are building a formidable global power base but there are still cracks in the foundations

With the addition of South Africa to the group late last year, the emerging markets bloc has expanded its reach and capability considerably. It now has fingers in pies cooking in all corners of the globe and each member-state has a rough home ‘region’ where it is the dominate force. Brazil has majority sway over Latin American affairs, China rules the construction industry in Africa and Russia has diplomatic and industrial control throughout the former Soviet Union nations. But the way they influence and react with each other – let alone other countries – is both a cause for celebration and concern.

China is the most successful of the BRICS. It competes with Brazil in Latin America and rivals South Africa throughout Africa, be it through construction contracts in Angola or oil agreements in Sudan. Its conveyor lines drive European businesses back home and its markets are being opened up to foreign firms. It is powerful militarily, diplomatically and economically. China also is skilled at both comforting and irritating rival BRICS. It is happy to let South Africa be a diplomatic voice for Africa while it maintains its industrial strength there. But it has annoyed India by cosying up to Pakistan recently with economic agreements and plans for motorways and railways between the two countries. The transport links would pass through a part of Kashmir that India sees as its own and that Islamabad ceded to Beijing in 1963.

The other powers have also tried to carve out distinct paths across the globe. Brazil is promoting itself as a leader of a new international diplomacy by flexing its negotiation muscles and by engaging with Iran and the Middle East. Russia is still sending rockets to the International Space Station and is arguably the closest of the BRICS to Europe. India is starting to move its weight in South East Asia and has belatedly broken free from its comfortable domestic engine room to engage with African nations and make its nuclear-backed voice heard. South Africa is aiming to make the continent it foots its own, at first through diplomacy (President Jacob Zuma recently met Colonel Gaddafi for talks), and later by possibly challenging China industrially.

There are many sticking points. China and India have a disputed border and Beijing is cross that Delhi lets the Dalai Lama use India as his base-in-exile. Diplomatically, Brazil and South Africa are making an impact on the world stage, while quietly letting China continue to invest in their ‘home’ regions. But while China powers on, Russia is stalling and South Africa relatively inexperienced as the baby of the club.

It is up to Brazil and India to move the BRICS on from a second-class talking-shop to the most important international alliance. An Argentine writing his doctorate on Argentina and Brazil’s economies recently told me that “Brazil is big, very big – too big in fact” and the same could be said for India. They are outgrowing their respective Latin American and sub-continental origins and it is time that they give China a rest from pace-setting. They are certainly all building themselves up quickly and strongly and the West ignores them at its peril.

A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.

The trouble with two presidents

It is Christmas time but the feeling of goodwill to all men seems not to have extended itself to elections season in Africa.

Laurent Gbagbo, the outgoing president of Ivory Coast was defeated in the vote on 28 November but has chosen to swear himself back into office, causing friction in the capital, Abidjan. The main problem appears to be that his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, has also taken the presidential oath. So Ivory Coast currently has two presidents, from opposing camps.

The African Union has sent ex-South African premier Thabo Mbeki to sort the situation out. However, his laissez-faire attitude towards Zimbabwe’s electoral hurdles is not easily forgotten. There are worries that he is something of a walkover when confronted with persistent and vociferous fellow African leaders.

Gbagbo has the army behind him and there are fears that Mbeki may pander to Gbagbo’s sympathies over Ouattara. The latter has strong backing from the north of the country and Mr Mbeki will be mindful of the geographical civil war in Ivory Coast in 2002-3, when the nation was divided into North and South. Nigeria is a clear and present example of the problems that can arise when you have a country split obviously into northerners and southerners. Sudan is rupturing over the issue. Further afield, the Korean Peninsula provides another example of the problem.

It is also election time at the moment in Egypt but there are problems afoot. Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party, withdrew from the vote over allegations of electoral corruption. It was hardly surprising then, that the governing National Democratic Party returned over 97% of the seats. Egypt is an international focus point for the continent, but eyebrows cannot keep being raised over its ‘democratic’ structure. Next year’s presidential elections will be key.

Back in West Africa, Niger is gearing up for local elections to be held on 31 December and the more significant contest to be the country’s leader on 3 January. President Mamadou Tandja is under pressure after the military grabbed power in a coup earlier this year. The head of the national electoral commission, Abdourhamane Ghousmane, has urged all politicians and parties to work together to try to achieve a nationally-recognised result in the New Year.

All hopes rest on his words being honoured. Otherwise Mr Mbeki could be off on another power-mediating placement sooner than he thought.