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What's wrong with Africa

About the author
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society.

“Seek ye first the political Kingdom!” said Kwame Nkrumah, the prophet of African independence and Ghana’s first leader when it became independent in 1957. His advice has been followed diligently by every politically ambitious African man ever since. The few who got to the top of Africa’s greasy political pole – no woman has yet made it – have seized it and held on tight, usually until pushed off by force.

Africa’s winner-takes-all politics lie at the heart of everything that has gone wrong with the continent. It is the reason why it has fallen behind the rest of the world economically, the reason for its wars and poverty.

Its roots go back to the creation of African states themselves, the lines drawn on maps by the European colonial powers at the end of the 19th century. The process eventually produced fifty-three states overlaying some 10,000 pre-existing societies and political entities.

Nigeria is a prime example. It has three big tribes and more than 400 ethnic groups, yet its people have to elect one president and one government. By comparison, imagine a Europe whose larger tribes (Germans, French, British) and twenty-five European Union states were united by force (not referendum); where the French are Muslim, the Germans Catholic, the British Protestant; where the only source of income (oil) is under German control; and where, if anyone mentions putting their own people first or forming an alliance with another ethnic group, they are accused of being “tribalist” and endangering the future of the state.

openDemocracy’s African voices on African problems include:

Chukwu Emeka-Chikezie, “African agency vs the aid business” (July 2005)

Wangari Maathai, “Africans can do it for themselves” (July 2005)

John Adeleke, “Africa’s re-development needs: a Nigerian perspective” (July 2005)

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, “Ban arms sales to Africa – nothing else required” (June 2005)

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African states, with a few exceptions, have no common understanding or experience of nationhood. Their flags, national anthems, and identities were created by outsiders. Patriotism, in the good sense of positive loyalty to one’s country and fellow citizens, is in short supply. If you want power, you play the ethnic card or smear your religious rivals. When you achieve power, you bring your own people into government – and even more important, into the army.

The state treasury becomes your private bank account. When you run for election the entire state structure and all its officials are at your disposal. If anyone inside the continent says anything you accuse them of interfering in internal affairs. If anyone outside Africa criticises you, you accuse them of racism and neo-colonialism.

It’s a simple formula, one that has worked brilliantly for Robert Mugabe and many others.

African paradoxes

Those new to Africa are often struck by a contrast: how individualistic and cynical African politicians are, and how communal and hopeful most African citizens are. Between rulers and ruled, there seems to be little connection or even shared values. The result is a dysfunctional political culture.

Despite it, some countries have worked. Botswana has been coup-free and relatively corruption-free. The presidency has passed through three safe pairs of hands. Tanzania remains virtually a one-party state but the recent election of a new presidential candidate by the ruling CCM party was as democratic as it gets. Ghana and Senegal have both changed governments through elections.

None of these states are free from problems of regional or ethnic discontent; Botswana with the San Bushmen, Tanzania with Zanzibar and Senegal and Ghana with minorities that feel excluded.

Other states, like Uganda and Kenya, seemed to be coming right then fell back into old problems. Uganda under Yoweri Museveni was the darling of aid-giving governments for years, to the extent that aid supplied more than half its budget. But now Museveni seems determined to change the constitution to extend his rule. A report commissioned by the World Bank found that it has turned into a corrupt one-party state and recommends that direct budget support to Uganda be stopped.

In Kenya, the corrupt old regime of Daniel arap Moi was replaced in December 2002 through the stunning electoral victory of an opposition alliance led by Mwai Kibaki. Two years on, Kenya seems to have become even more corrupt than before; the resignation of its anti-corruption chief, John Githongo, in February 2005 is symptomatic of the problem.

Then there are the big holes on the map; Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria itself – all ruled in great parts by local barons and warlords and where there is no democracy despite, in Nigeria’s case at least, elections.

This overall picture makes the prospect of turning Africa around with aid and debt relief seem at best problematic, at worst a pipedream.

Uganda illustrates the terrible dilemma facing those who wish to help Africans improve their lives. To punish Museveni by cutting aid could mean hurting millions of Ugandans who are beginning at last to see real change. The country is so dependent on aid that dropping it would risk destroying the economic gains it has made in recent years. Museveni knows the donors, and their moral scruples, well. He will take huge risks with his country’s future to stay in power. Will he, after all he has achieved, throw it all away? As they used to say of Moi in Kenya: “If you are the only one on the teat, it does not matter how thin the cow gets.”

Such hard-boiled calculations do not enter the soft world of Live8 concerts and the campaigns for debt relief and more aid. This aid-agency-driven agenda – on prominent display at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland – creates the illusion that the hungry African child the NGOs use in their fundraising propaganda can be directly reached by individual donors’ money.

In this world there are no cynical rulers, no corrupt governments, no nasty armies. Instead there are governments whose only constraints are the funds which, if they did not have to spend them servicing debt, they would spend on food, medicine and schoolbooks for that child.

Just don’t do it (times five)

I was delighted when Bob Geldof said he did not want western citizens’ money – only their support – because there are things the west can do for Africa apart from giving it money. Or rather there are damaging things the west can stop doing, barriers it can remove to give Africa a real chance to earn its living in the world and develop.

First, the west can fight to end two kinds of subsidies – the agricultural subsidies for farmers in Europe, America and Japan that keep world prices low and squeeze African commodities out of the global market, and the export subsidies that allow cheap food to be dumped in Africa, destroying African markets. High tariffs keeping out African goods need to be cut but African countries need a bit of time before reciprocating the removal of trade barriers as they have no safety-nets to protect workers who lose their jobs.

Second, the west should look closely at the “external” dimension of corruption in Africa. Britain has resisted signing the United Nations Convention on Corruption and British companies are fighting regulations that would make them responsible for corrupt practices by their agents as well as their own staff. London seems to be the favourite city for laundering African corruption money; although reporting regulations have been tightened, the Financial Services Authority pursues reports from banks about suspicious funds only when they are related to drugs or terrorism.

Third, the west must stop encouraging the brain drain from Africa. There are said to be more Malawian nurses in England’s second city of Birmingham than in Malawi itself, a country ravaged by HIV/Aids. The way forward is not to ban movement but to find ways of turning “people flow” and “skills flow” into a productive and mutually beneficial (win-win) process rather than a one-way (win-lose) street as it is at present.

Fourth, the arms and mines that kill in Africa’s wars may mostly be made in the former Soviet Union but the dealers are based mainly in London and the deals are made in its financial district. They are not licensed or regulated in any way. This should change.

Fifth, the west – and Britain in particular – must reform its immigration policy. Thousands of Africans living in Britain or trying to come here for study or to visit relatives are left with an impression of Britain somewhat at odds with Tony Blair’s passion for Africa. I spent a day and half trying to get a visa for a well-known Ugandan MP who was scheduled to speak at a meeting I was organising. Not even the intervention by the new minister for Africa, David Triesman, could move the Home Office to deliver it in time.

How the west can help

All these points were touched on in the Commission for Africa report, published in March 2005. At its launch, Tony Blair said the report’s recommendations were now British policy. If he were serious, then relevant legislative proposals and the parliamentary time to discuss them should have been part of the government’s programme for 2005-06. But the mentions of Africa in the Queen’s speech that announced this programme were vague and exhortatory.

There are other worrying signs in Britain. The main responsibility for Africa has been transferred from the foreign office – where office and personnel cuts are allowing it to shed its African experts like dead leaves – to the expanding department for international development, where knowledge of development theory is deep but experience of African political realities is thin or non-existent. In the long term, such decisions may be costly.

The indispensable foundation for good decision-making is clear-sighted understanding. The west needs to make a long-term commitment to Africa and spend more resources trying to understand how the continent really works. Only then can it help Africans to put Africa right.


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