Africa’s mixed feelings on new World Bank chief

Many in Africa expressed disappointment at Wednesday’s news that former United States trade envoy Robert Zoellick is to replace Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, saying the job should have gone to a developing country.

But there was also hope that Zoellick’s experience on African trade issues could bring benefits.

After decades of Americans heading the international lender, many on the world’s poorest continent felt their time had come to play a key role — and then been snatched away.

“Look at the United Nations. When Africans had one of their own leading it, they felt so much closer to the organisation,” Kenyan political scientist Ludeki Chweya said, referring to Ghana’s Kofi Annan, who was UN secretary general for a decade. “Such an appointment would give the impression that the [World] Bank might just become a bit more sensitive to the needs and particularities of Africa.”

The scandal surrounding Wolfowitz’s departure especially irked many Africans who saw a clear case of double standards by a man seeking to crack down on corruption in their midst.

Wolfowitz — already derided by many as a key architect of the Iraq war — stepped down after it was revealed he had authorised a hefty pay rise for his companion.

‘Bank of America’?

Some acknowledged Zoellick, whom US President George Bush nominated on Wednesday, would benefit from years of experience negotiating trade deals with developing nations.

“He is a great defender of free trade and in any case he will not be worse than Wolfowitz,” Tunisian economics expert Rida el Kefi said. “He knows the subject. He is a man who is suited to the task, unlike his predecessor.”

Others noted Zoellick’s diplomatic experience in Africa. As deputy to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he helped guide the Bush administration’s strategy on Darfur.

“I think it’s excellent,” said Senegal’s Economy Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, told Reuters, adding he hoped it would erase the tensions caused by the controversial departure of Wolfowitz.

“We have a lot of hope in him … Zoellick is known as a great friend of Africa. He’s worked a lot with Africa within the Agoa,” he added, referring to the African Growth and Opportunity Act that enhances US market access for 38 African nations.

But some were angered by what they saw as US arrogance.

“Why should the chairman of the World Bank always be an American? It’s called the World Bank, not the Bank of America,” said Moroccan entrepreneur Hassan Cherif. The White House appeared determined to retain political control, he charged.

“I don’t think it is a democratic process, but the United States have their own definition of democracy anyway,” Cherif added. “They use it when it suits them and ignore it when it goes against their interests.”

Some lamented what they saw as a missed opportunity.

“It has been the same since World War II,” said one woman working for Kenya’s government who asked not to be named. “Washington appoints the Bank’s leader and Europe the International Monetary Fund. We are the ones those things are meant to help. This should have been the start of a new era.” — Reuters

Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis, Zakia Abdennebi in Rabat and Diadie Ba in Dakar

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