Africans are relishing something of a reversal in roles. The former colonial powers in Europe are wrestling with debt crises, austerity budgets, rising unemployment and social turmoil. By contrast much of sub-Saharan Africa can point to robust growth, better balanced books and rising capital inflows. There is an opportunity in this novel scenario: for Africa to assert itself on the global stage, and for European countries to take advantage of their historic footprint in Africa by stimulating commercial expansion to their south. But it is far from clear either side will grasp it.

The problems faced by western governments are all too familiar to African countries. They too found their public services hollowed out in the 1980s and 1990s under the strict conditions of World Bank and International Monetary Fund bail-outs. In the worst instances, state authority was fatally weakened as discontent boiled over on the streets.

Today, by contrast they can point to improved economic figures, a reviving middle class and arguably, in places, more effective social control. Even Lagos – much rougher, larger, poorer and unequal than London – has never witnessed looting on the scale that took place in the former capital of empire last week, although inhabitants of the Nigerian mega-city have certainly competed when it comes to arson.

Africa has been enjoying this reversal of roles. As rioting spread from London to other cities, South Africa’s foreign ministry took the unusual step of issuing a travel advisory warning its citizens against visiting the UK. There was also retaliation for past jibes about their country’s capacity to organise the 2010 football World Cup, by questioning whether London can be trusted to host a safe Olympics.

The response from Westminster’s politicians also failed to serve as much of a model. As one veteran Nigerian diplomat wryly put it to me, Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to echo Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi – who blames “terrorists” for the insurgency on his doorstep – when he blamed the worst violence on the UK mainland in generations simplistically to “criminals.”

If British society is sick, and the European project is flailing, there are of course patients in Africa in far worse shape. It only took the improbable appearance this week of Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s development secretary, in Mogadishu – a city no UK minister has visited since 1992 – to serve a reminder.

Mr Mitchell’s visit would have been bolder if it had taken place last year, when the seeds of the current famine were already sown and the absence of a functioning state was blighting the region with piracy and Islamist extremism. But it did serve as a contrast to the abnegation of responsibility in the crisis in the Horn of Africa by regional leaders.

It is Western governments and charities, along with the UN, that have stepped into the African breach, providing the finances and expertise to manage a crisis has already claimed thousands of lives and may have repercussions in the region for years to come. For all Africa’s failures, however, the west must not draw the wrong conclusions. It is tempting to see only a familiar picture of African weakness. But in some ways the famine is a chapter that ill befits the times.

In the decade and more since China began sketching out the terms of its new engagement with Africa, the continent has undergone a transformational shift in its relations with the outside world. A stage once dominated by cautious western donors and jaded former colonial powers now hosts Brazilians, Indians, Russians, Turks and others queueing up to seize the opportunities of African resources and markets. The relative decline of western influence and commercial dominance forms part of the same narrative.

The contours of this new order are still being defined. Yet neither European nor African governments appear to have seized the opportunity presented: for African governments to stake out a more independent role and greater say in world affairs, and for Europeans to unshackle themselves from the unhealthy paternalism of the past and compete on more equitable terms for the business opportunities provided by rapid economic expansion to their south.

Mr Cameron appeared to have at least half understood this on his recent trip to South Africa and Nigeria. He dropped the habitually hectoring tone in favour of an upbeat assessment of Africa’s trading potential. But in comparison with the relentless pursuit of African attentions by Chinese and other emerging power officials, his visit was a barely perceptible blip in between domestic crises.

Many of his western peers still appear unaware of how grating it is for Africans to be lectured on poverty reduction, corruption and financial probity in the light of recent governance failures on their own turf. Africans can, after all, legitimately ask what if not a failure of governance caused the global financial crisis in 2008, among the many other problems that best western governments.

Europe has surrendered moral high ground as well as commercial dominance in Africa. But it is not too late to reverse that. On the former, at least, Europeans and Americans have remained by far the biggest donors during the famine, where African and emerging nation voices have been absent. On the latter, Africa’s economic recovery has only just begun.

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