Whilst speculation that the phone hacking saga could be on its way to bringing down David Cameron’s government is still largely premature, no one can deny the seriousness of the events unfolding. In less than two weeks one of the UK’s largest newspapers has ceased trading, two of the most senior police officers have resigned, numerous high profile figures including the Prime Minister’s former spin doctor have been arrested and ever more damaging stories are breaking at a truly alarming rate.
It is little wonder that the Parliamentary recess has been delayed to allow for an emergency debate. And it is perhaps natural that both the opposition and backbenchers on his own side have loudly criticised the fact that Cameron is currently in Africa rather than fighting the political fire at home. Labour leader Ed Miliband somewhat gleefully declared that “tomorrow we will have some of the most important select committee hearings in modern times and the Prime Minister has decided to leave the country”, whilst a Conservative source put the boot in by exclaiming to the Evening Standard “He is in the wrong place and the wrong time. It is an error of judgment.”
However, though expected, this criticism and Cameron’s consequent decision to scrap over half of his five day African visit, is deeply unsettling.
For Africa is a continent in turmoil. On the Horn over ten million people are caught up in the worst famine for sixty years, with UNICEF today warning that half a million children are facing imminent death and desperate agencies taking the unprecedented step of supplying aid to Islamist controlled camps – breaking conventions on both sides. Meanwhile, as South Sudan tries to find its feet, the possibility of a new Central African conflict remains ominously real, with suggestions today that war crimes were recently committed by the Northern government in the border region of South Kordofan.
Elsewhere Ugandan tyrant Yoweri Museveni is cracking down against protests, out of fear that the Arab Spring will head South; tension in Zimbabwe is rising ahead of impending elections; fears of retribution against ousted dictator Laurent Gbagbo’s former supporters are still plaguing the Ivory Coast and the Kimberley Process- the most significant development in ending the trade of blood diamonds- is on the rocks.
Tunisia and Egypt are still facing protracted political upheaval and discontent despite their successful revolutions, whilst in Libya Gaddafi has dug in- apparently seeking to kill as many of his own countrymen as possible before his seemingly inevitable downfall.
How could it possibly be wrong therefore, for the leader of a G8 nation, that holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has significant developmental, military and economic involvement in Africa to spend a mere five days in this vast continent – especially whilst it faces so many challenges? How can politicians in the UK possibly justify calling on Cameron to curtail his attention to the continent at such a pivotal time?
Of course- the itinerary of his visit was far from suitable when it comes to addressing any of the serious issues in any level of detail: the focus on trade and the time wasted on pointless publicity stunts such as a meet and greet with on-tour Tottenham Hotspur players, raise issues in themselves. However, the Prime Minister was on the ground in Africa and valuable conversations about issues such as the uprising in Libya and the state of African economies were taking place. Politicians of all sides should have been coming together to push for five days of real, productive outreach – addressing matters such as civil liberties, water rights and regional stability as well as economic issues, rather than seizing the opportunity for political point scoring and dragging Cameron back for the next stage of the sordid scandal at home.
Unfortunately, like the 2009 furore over MPs expenses- phone hacking has dominated the political agenda, pushing everything else to the side-lines. Whilst there are unarguably serious issues to tackle and whilst no one is in any doubt that deplorable acts have been committed, politicians and journalists must ensure that equally if not more important developments both in the UK and abroad, do not fall by the wayside. If this is allowed to happen, the worst damage is yet to be done.