Jump to navigation

Vol 55 No 10

Published 16th May 2014

Richard Kershaw

Richard Kershaw, Editor of Africa Confidential from 1963 to 1968, has died aged 80. In 2000, he wrote this article for a booklet we produced on AC's history, Africa 2000 – 40 years of Africa Confidential. He also selected four of his favourite articles from his time as Editor. There are links to them at the end of this piece

The end of 1963 was an interesting, and lucky, time to be asked to become Editor of Africa Confidential. There is no doubt that Africa as a whole (which then, as now, we defined as including the Maghreb, North Africa and the Horn as well as South of the Sahara) had greater relative importance to the outside world, particularly Britain, than before and probably since.

There were several reasons: the decolonisation process for Britain and France (and the United Nations Trusteeship Council) had just about been completed. But many of the young new democracies were creating anxiety by becoming one-party states, led by Kwame Nkrumah's articulate Pan-Africanism; and simultaneously, military takeovers of civil authority were about to happen in country after country. Further, this was happening in a wider world polarised by the Cold War, which was about to spill over into Vietnam. Western governments were obsessed by fears of losing the competition for influence and residual control in these fledgling African states – particularly since the Soviet Union and its rival, China, had a palpable advantage as long-term ideological and military opponents of colonialism. Soviet aid for Algeria's Front de libération nationale against the French, after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had been championed against the West, was followed by support for an endless list of national liberation movements.

This writer at least was never convinced by the alarmist projections that much of Africa was likely to 'fall' ultimately to Communism: the agrarian economies and extended family structures that were so widespread on the continent always seemed to me singularly ill-fitted to an ideology based on a proletariat and an industrial class structure. Certainly there was a lot of fishing in the pool by all parties in the global struggle. Certainly Africa was wide open to corruption. And the weakness of the administrations, of the Westminster and Paris models that were the West's dowry, left them no match for the pressures that were to beset most Organisation of African Unity members.

Exploiting the exploiters
Yet the victors were hardly ever the Communists in the long run. More often they were local military and economic elements who were fully able to rape their own societies, Mobutu-style, without malign help from Moscow. Indeed, many were helped to do so by Western intolerance and even connivance in the name of preserving freedom and Western economic interests.

Within this context there were three major conflicts which came to dominate my years as Editor. There was the slow but relentless progress to Rhodesia's UDI [Unilateral declaration of independence], which set white immigrants against the former metropolis. Similar situations had recently been avoided in Central Africa by the break-up of the Federation, and in Kenya by a lot of money and promises. But the Rhodesian problem was now to begin an astonishingly long run as a major British and, eventually, international question.

Then there was the collapse of civilian government in by far the largest African country, Nigeria, followed by ethnic conflict between its regions (dreadfully echoed in the first months of 2000); and another relentless march into civil war with the attempted secession of Biafra. This was a conflict which would improbably couple the former colonial power, Britain, with Russia as the main military suppliers of Federal Nigeria, while the French gave succour to Biafra.

Southern frontline
Third, there was the overarching question of South Africa. Forced out of the Commonwealth in 1961, it remained vastly the most powerful state south of the Sahara, industrially, commercially and militarily. To me, it seemed clear that the apartheid system and white government would be proof against force from outside or inside for a generation. However, two things would eventually conspire to destroy it – the demography of such a predominantly black country in which the majority's numbers and skills would grow remorselessly, and also the demise sooner or later of the belt of white-controlled or still colonial territories to South Africa's north. Rhodesia was only a small part of that huge historical drama: Mozambique, Angola, Katanga and the old High Commission Territories of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland would all play a part. There was a long list of other conflicts – in the Horn; in Southern Sudan (a war which I was the first person to film); in the Eastern Congo (which led to the first white re-invasion of black Africa with the Belgian parachute drop at Stanleyville).

There were military mutinies in British East Africa (defeated, until Idi Amin tried again); in Ghana, which succeeded in unseating Nkrumah. There were Nigeria and Sierra Leone. And there was continual conflict in Chad as well as in the Western Sahara.

So what was one to make of all this and do with all these swirling excitements, in the context of a London-published newsletter? The truth is that London was a good, perhaps the best, place in which to try to sort out what might be happening on a continent-wide basis.

For one thing, I had been covering African affairs for the Scotsman newspaper during the previous four years in which the new presidents and leaders of African parties and movements had continuously passed through London arguing for and negotiating Independence. I was therefore of that lucky generation of Africanists which was acquainted with a large cast of African politicians and other leaders at the start of their careers as aspirant national leaders. And of course may of them were to survive in or near power for decade after decade.

This brought another advantage: it made us useful to the BBC and ITV at a time when a lot was happening in Africa, and there was surprisingly little experience of film reporting from there.During my five years at Africa Confidential, I visited Africa regularly for Panorama and This Week. Indeed, after an initial trip right round the continent, every single visit I made to Africa when Editor was to report for television. It took me to see Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and President J.B. Vorster of South Africa; Duma Nokwe and the African National Congress leadership as well as Frelimo's Eduardo and Janet Mondlane, exiled from Mozambique in Tanzania; to see the Black Panthers in Algeria as well as most of the continent's Anglophone presidents; to war in Cairo (1967) as well as in Southern Sudan (1965); and in Nigeria on far, far too many occasions.

This helped both ways: the fact that we were circulating in print every fortnight directly to principals in the continent's swirling politics certainly helped with access for TV interviews at critical moments, like UDI or General Emeka Ojukwu's break with Lagos. The extended playing back of those interviews on the BBC's African services certainly also helped to promote Africa Confidential. Above all, I suppose, at this early stage of the paper, going to Africa as a broadcaster saved the paper an immense amount of travel expenditure which I doubt would have been available otherwise! And it made it much easier to recruit a new group of correspondents across the continent.

While London may then have been a good centre for collating information about Africa, reliable correspondents in the field were bound to be the lifeblood. Many of ours were distinguished journalists, like Stanley Uys, Dick Hall and Clyde Sanger. Many others were relative newcomers to international journalism. All were protected by our strict confidentiality about our sources.

'You and your Confidential'
Several would write to me at home. One, a member of the Ethiopian royal government, addressed me as if I were an old girlfriend, interspersed with analyses of the descent into deep trouble of his country. Another correspondent in an Islamic capital was an English Marxist professor, whose greatest enthusiasm was the history of pornography. (His letters to me were bizarre in the extreme, but he was an acute observer of political as well as human behaviour.)

Care in protecting our correspondents' identity led indirectly to the renaming of the newsletter. We had, following the Africa 1960 pattern, changed our title each January, with all the consequential costs of reprinting stationery, and even needing a new copyright. President Hastings Banda, an old acquaintance, wrote to me to complain about something we had written, saying he would denounce us if I did not tell him the name of our correspondent in his cabinet (he was in fact a journalist who became a celebrated national editor in Britain). Dr Banda added the comment, 'You and your “confidential”! It is not confidential anyway. Anyone with £7, seven shillings can buy it...' When we sought a permanent rather than an annual name, Kamuzu supplied it.

There were many less overt attempts to uncover sources of important stories we had carried. The crudest was the Soviet diplomat who, over lunch, explained that he was so restricted in his publications budget that he could not afford seven guineas: however, his entertainment budget was much more generous, so perhaps I could meet him regularly and tell him what I had printed and where it came from.

'Where did they get this stuff?'
There was the American professor (from Brookings Institution in Washington, I think he said) who offered me an unimaginably large personal fee for an article on Ethiopia little different from a recent issue. But it must have full detailed notes on the sources with the government (see above)! Inevitably there was a pass from the South Africans – could this visitor (who claimed he had been sent by a leftist academic who was under a banning order in South Africa) see our files on his behalf about Pretoria's defence levels? It was not difficult to check back on that one.

Even the Foreign Office News Department asked the source of one report – not for themselves, of course: for the American Ambassador in the country concerned. 'Holy cow! Where do they get this stuff?' he was quoted as asking his British colleague. All nicely flattering – and some indication that we were on the right lines of enquiry ourselves. But it must be added that all of this, particularly the travelling, was only possible because of the back-up of the Deputy Editors who had to put together many issues: first Oliver Carruthers, then Godfrey Morrison. And there was the incalculable contribution of experts such as Keith Kyle (polymath on East Africa and the Congo) and David Williams and his team at West Africa, from where Bridget Bloom and Kaye Whiteman kept me supplied on large areas of the continent, particularly French West and Equatorial Africa. In all, it really was a good time to be there.



It had occurred to me that, with Britain still deeply committed east of Suez, our continued ability to have staging posts through and over North and East Africa was central to relationships with a number of countries. As it happened, this piece, which was written by a Fleet Street colleague, caused unwitting convulsions: unbeknownst to me, secret negotations were due to start on exactly this subject the week after it appeared. The Sudanese negotiators laid our 'blue sheet' on the table, and things went nowhere for the time being... Unwitting it may have been, but it was an indication that we were beginning to be taken seriously by a number of African governments.

AC Vol 5 No 10 • 13 May 1964

AFRICA | BRITAIN: Bases and overflying: the facts 

Libya's commitment to ending the bases agreements with the West has major implications for military air routes

Britain and the United States believe that the present Libyan government has no desire to break the bases agreements with the West, which are financially rewarding and militarily comforting. But in the separate negotiations they are having with King Idris's government, they were surprised to meet nearly as tough Libyan demands in private discussion as in the opening sessions of the formal talks. Both sets of these are now are now in temporary recess. Neither has got beyond the stage of preliminary skirmishing – the US talks lasted only one day.

Read this article for free now


Sudan had had a revolution in the previous October, in which (against the general African trend) a civil government succeeded in taking over from the military regime of General Ibrahim Abboud. This left a window in which there could be an attempt to stop the conflict in the South, which was already serious. I managed to get into the South, at this interesting moment. I met Anya Nya leaders – also bizarrely ran into the Congolese Simba leader Gen. Nicolas Olenga, who was in Juba to collect arms. On the Juba Hotel terrace eyeing each other sat Olenga, who had just been denounced by Lyndon Johnson for the Stanleyville [Kisangani] massacare; a group of Russian and Algerian pilots who had flown in his arms; some Sudanese officers; and my film crew. We were then joined by a delegation of Nuer and Shilluk rebels who had sought me out because of the brief truce. This started a long connection between the newsletter and Southern Sudan. 

AC Vol 6 No 3 • 5 February 1965

SUDAN: Sudan's last chance in the South? 

With the best of intentions, the interim Sudanese government is trying to end its Southern problem

On Saturday 14 February negotiations will open in Juba between the government, led by the Prime Minister, Sirr el Khatim Khalifa, and representatives of the Southern Front and its émigré spokesmen, the Sudan African National Union (SANU). But there are several distinct camps among both Northern and Southern politicians.

Read this article for free now


1966 was the year for military coups, in both French and English-speaking West and Equatorial Africa. The most serious by far for us was that in Nigeria (AC Vol 7 No 2, NIGERIA: Questions for history or now?; and AC Vol 7 No 3, NIGERIA: The change is permanent).

AC Vol 7 No 3 • 4 February 1966

NIGERIA: The change is permanent 

1966 was the year for military coups, in both French and English-speaking West and Equatorial Africa. The most serious by far for us was that in Nigeria

Nigeria has changed for ever. It has got a military regime which the great mass of the population has accepted – in the South and among intellectuals, with acclaim. As pointed out by the magazine West Africa, to which we must pay a tribute for its consistent accuracy and charitable understanding, a return to the former system of a political federation is now highly unlikely. Not only is the cost of the four regional structures a disproportionate burden, but the economic planning that Nigeria needs will be much easier if Nigeria becomes a unitary political state, with a rationalised economic federal system – in other words, a decentralised administration with central direction. It is significant that the least tribalist and regionalist organisations in Nigeria over the last few years have been the ones most purely federal – the army and the police. And these are now the arbiters of policy.

Read this article for free now


Uganda also nearly had a coup at the same time. This was one occasion on which I had to trust my hunches: the scrawled report I received by letter from Kampala opened 'by the time you get this a coup will have taken place...' Knowing Milton Obote's paranoia and his elaborate security apparatus, I had to judge that he would probably know what my informant knew, and would act to forestall it. Luckily for me, (though not for the conspirators,) I was right. In the next issue (AC Vol 7 No 5, UGANDA: Background for the coup) we were able to fill out the story further, and indulge in my hobby-horse that attempts always to put African events in an East-West context were wrong. The second piece was also notable for raising for the first time some of the background to Idi Amin's relations with Obote, which would lead to the latter's eventual overthrow.

There is a tailpiece to this story. A Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference was held in London later that year. At a Marlborough House reception for the leaders, Milton Obote recognised me and said: 'I tried to have you arrested in Kampala, to find out how you knew about the coup before it occurred.' I told him I had not been in his country since the previous autumn, but was glad I had got the story right. At that moment I was tapped on the shoulder. Her Majesty joined the conversation and asked what we were talking about...

AC Vol 7 No 4, • 18 February 1966

UGANDA: How near to a coup? 

Last week Uganda was very near to a coup. Rumours of plotting and of coups d'etat are endemic in Uganda politics, and have become to some extent self-perpetuating – to a rumoured plot there is always the gossipy answer of a counter-plot. Yet the present crisis, which is nominally about allegations of money gained by important Ugandans as a by-product of the Congo rebellion, is by far the most serious since independence. And the rumours of impending military action against government figures are far better established than before.

Read this article for free now


Richard Ruegg Kershaw • 16 April 1934-28 April 2014


Related Articles

Bases and overflying: the facts

Libya's commitment to ending the bases agreements with the West has major implications for military air routes

Britain and the United States believe that the present Libyan government has no desire to break the bases agreements with the West, which are financially rewarding and militarily c...


In the Navy

The exercise of power on Africa's seas

India has defined Africa as part of its wider strategic interest and is concerned about nuclear rival China's encroachment on what it perceives as its'wider sphere of influence' a...

Writing development into law

The drama of French military operations in Africa eclipses the fact that the continent is the target of almost all its admittedly tiny bilateral aid

Following President François Hollande's brief African tour this month came questions about France's development aid policy. After all, critics say, it is economic developmen...