African leadership and the avoidance of responsibility

The failure of African leaders to implement national plans and mechanisms in time to prevent drought from leading to famine, is morally repugnant and painful beyond words, says Bertha Amisi

Earlier this month, governments, donors and ngos met to discuss ways of preventing drought in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda from creating severe food crisis and famine. This is the latest of at least five meetings convened quite late in the day by African governments. While their very late response may be better than never, it has cost the death of thousands of children, severe acute malnutrition of thousands more, brought great shame to parents who have had to bear not being able to feed their children and indignity to 13.3 million people in the region. This is a very high price to pay for our leaders lack of concern for the  welfare of their people. It is morally repugnant and painful beyond words.

Government leaders know very well that drought and its effects pose a risk to the economy and welfare of their people. That is why they have national plans for the management of resources in Arid and Semi-Arid areas that are meant to prevent drought from leading to the severe food crisis the region faces right now. The Kenya government, for example, has an elaborate Arid Land Resource Management Project Structure. Since 2003, government leaders and officials have gone even further and promoted regional and sub-regional policies aimed at improving food security and disaster management policies  and institutional mechanisms. This was the time to also discuss contingency plans for the kind of crisis we are facing. Governments were receiving and generating early warning information on drought and the state of food security. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, UN agencies and international aid agencies working on the ground raised the alarm as far back as 2006. A number launched appeals for food aid. The African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development  and the East African Community  claim to have early warning systems. National meteorological agencies provided information. Apart from Somalia, I am sure that legislators, local government officials and communities from affected areas raised the alarm and called for urgent action.

Our leaders were completely aware that they faced a serious food problem as far back as 2008. They signalled their political will by developing regional, sub-regional national mechanisms to ensure food security. During these policy processes they had time to debate ways of preventing famine as a matter of urgency. If not, then the food riots should have jolted them take immediate and long-term action. After all governments have fallen on account of hungry citizens.

African leaders and governments’ very late response to early warning on famine brings to fore their relations with society in the realm of social welfare. African leaders and governments appear detached from the everyday struggles of their citizens to provide for their welfare, particularly those in poorer, marginal areas. Related to this aloofness is a tendency to avoid taking responsibility for failing to adequately respond to problems related to welfare of citizens, famine being the most extreme outcome of poor and tardy delivery of services. The late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem expressed this avoidance of responsibility for the African peoples’ welfare very well in a debate on Africa’s food crisis five years ago “It is only when it comes to feeding our peoples, educating our children, building roads and hospitals, creating jobs and looking after the welfare of our peoples that our governments plead lack of resources.”

In this aloofness and avoidance of responsibility, I notice a discomfort, a kind of awkwardness towards the promotion of human welfare – humanitarianism. This attitude is at odds with the principle of solidarity that African leaders, governments and peoples appeal to.  It negates the value solidarity has in inspiring new kinds of political action with regard to people’s welfare. Appeals for solidarity often seem like mere slogans for rallying people so late in the day and whose power ceases when the crisis is over. William Gumede argues with reference to South Africa that there is not only a “desperate need of new thinking and new policies but also a renewal in values, morals and ethics.” This claim goes to the heart of what explains why there had to be so much suffering before our leaders and governments responded to the famine - the absence of moral obligation to act and quickly.

While I commend our leaders for initiating strategies, policies and institutional mechanisms, these are only one part of what needs to be done to prevent severe drought from leading to famine.  What is missing is the courage to do the right thing – moral courage. African leaders and governments need to acknowledge that it is wrong to allow the death of so many children and the hunger of millions to compel action. They need to accept responsibility for failing to act in solidarity with the people. Moral courage to do the right thing will come from a renewed sense of solidarity as a political value.

African peoples want to see their leaders and governments exercising leadership in preventing or mitigating humanitarian crises without being forced or pressured to do so. Doing so requires a renewed commitment to the values, morals and ethics promoting the welfare of all citizens. A leadership compelled to act on the basis of solidarity expresses empathy, generosity, hospitality, compassion, caring and sharing in its relations with all citizens. Leaders who do the right thing will be open to analyses that accurately present the reality on ground, no matter how painful or terrible. Such leaders know that this allows them to make wise decisions that solve, rather than aggravate, problems. Since the welfare of the people matters to them, they will be on ground to assess the situation and immediately mobilize whatever resources needed to prevent their population from going hungry. We will not complain that they are proactive.

African leaders who care, and the governments they serve in, will discard old ways of doing government business, especially the highly centralized decision making (in the office of the executive or minister) and lengthy bureaucratic red tape that are out of place in emergency situations. They will have appropriate contingency plans and the financial, administrative and logistical systems in place for timely delivery. They will insist that the government officers implementing these plans and systems are highly competent, motivated and empowered to do what it takes to save lives.  Corrupt government officials and local politicians out to gain from the crisis will be dismissed and prosecuted. Those invisible transport cartels frustrating delivery of services in order to gain a windfall profit will be exposed, blacklisted and denied licence to operate.

It will take a renewal of values, morals and ethics in state elite relations with society to turn solidarity from being a mere slogan into a principle that inspires action for the peoples welfare in every day life. This task of moral renewal of political action however cannot be left to political leaders alone. Gumede rightly observes that African intellectuals have a very important role in bringing back moral reasoning to public policy on social welfare issues. Unfortunately, few African intellectuals and scholars show much interest in research or thinking on humanitarianism, especially what it means for us as Africans. There is a lot of compelling criticism of the western dominated international humanitarian intervention as an industry that creates dependence. While this may be true, it should not stand as an excuse for neglecting the place of humanitarianism and philanthropy in our society. African peoples are often the first to respond before their governments and before the international humanitarian agencies troop in. Then they disappear from the story. Their stories need to come out and the telling of this story belongs to African intellectuals.

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About the author

Bertha K. Amisi is an independent researcher and doctoral candidate in political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse University. Her research interests focus on state-society relations in situations of violent political conflict and peace-building processes in Africa. She has taught at the Syracuse University and is a part-time lecturer at the New School Graduate Program in International Affairs in New York City.