Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

February 4, 2010

A new generation of humanitarians and philanthropists has been reading such damning news reports about Africa for so long that it thinks the continent has to be saved. If they were asked what Africa has to be saved from, they would list any number of devils: poverty, disease, famine, drought, environmental degradation, civil war, tribalism, genocide, corruption, exploitation.

Though it is hard to find any lingering evidence of it, there was a time when the future of Africa was described in generally optimistic terms. Independence rolled across the continent with a forceful euphoria, violently shoving aside the old colonial order. Economies had been growing wildly across the continent, buoyed by global industrial expansion. Africa was known to possess vast untapped stores of natural resources. Labor was cheap. Infrastructure, thanks to colonial development projects, was better than ever. Even archaeology was on Africa’s side, as the Leakey family found fossils proving the continent to be the birthplace of all humans. Africa’s future was at least as promising as the developing regions of Latin America and East Asia, and many economic experts considered its prospects to be better than its peers.

In order to honestly assess what it is that Africa must be saved from, it is important to know what happened to so drastically change the continent’s prospects. If Africa was at some point shortly after independence beset by uninvited and unavoidable external calamities, then it would probably be accurate to say that Africa now has to be saved from whichever of these calamities are still lingering. If, on the other hand, Africa courted its own disaster, then would it not be more accurate to say that Africa now needs to be saved from itself? Or that Africa needs to save itself?

Africa has two fundamental problems: the ludicrous borders it inherited from colonialism and the persistent uselessness of its rulers. All of its many other troubles derive from these two.

The first problem, its borders, is a done deal. After nearly fifty years of independence they cannot be changed. Kenya is Kenya, whether or not it ever should have been. There has been exactly one change to the political boundaries in Africa since the independence era, the birth of Eritrea in 1993. The charter of the African Union unequivocally affirms the territorial integrity of all African countries.

Unlike so many of Europe’s wars, which historically have involved one country trying to expand into the territory of another, Africa’s many wars have been largely internal. The typical African war involves a dictator psychotically guarding power and territory from the advances of one or more revolutionary or secessionist militias (or, conversely, one or more psychotic militias fighting to wrest power and territory from the incumbent dictator.) Though African governments rarely fight wars across borders, neighboring states often support each other’s opponents. Throughout the 1980s, Ethiopia hosted the Sudan People’s Liberation Army while Sudan supported the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. At the same time, South Africa’s African National Congress was operating from rear bases in Mozambique and Angola while the apartheid government in South Africa supported RENAMO in Mozambique and UNITA in Angola. While African despots are happy to support rebels seeking to overthrow other, disliked, African despots, none are willing to support any changes to the continent’s international boundaries. This is for a very good reason: no African tyrant wants to support a precedent that might eventually lead to his own loss of territory.

Occasionally, though less often, one African country invades another. Rwanda invaded Congo twice in the 1990s. The second time Ugandan soldiers joined the Rwandese, while Angola and Zimbabwe fought on the side of the failing Congolese government in what became known as Africa’s World War. Both times Rwandan troops tried to obscure their involvement in the conflict by disguising themselves as an indigenous rebel movement from eastern Congo. Similarly, Liberian warlord Charles Taylor secretly sent a proxy militia of drugged orphan teenagers into Sierra Leone as the Revolutionary United Front. Both occupations were largely about plunder. Taylor stole diamonds from Sierra Leone while Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and Zimbabwe ravaged all of the Congo’s vast natural resources, including diamonds, timber, bauxite, coltan, copper, and gold. Never did any of these countries state a territorial claim to the land they occupied. No one suggested that the borders of either Congo or Sierra Leone had been altered.

Through no fault of its own, Africa has been locked into its contrived borders. It is less easy to say that Africa bears no responsibility for the parasitic rulers who have leeched the continent of much of its potential. It is often stated that governments derive their sovereignty from their people, and that therefore governments are responsible to those people. But is it not also true that people are responsible for their governments?

For more than fifty years African countries have failed to install but the very odd and infrequent decent or even legitimate government. The occasional tyrant or idiot can be forgiven as a fluke, but if Africa allows or actively installs three consecutive generations of insanely corrupt and dangersous governments, then that is firmly the fault of African populations, and it is firmly the responsibility of those populations to find the right formula for establishing at least tolerable governments.

Consider the following sobering facts from The State of Africa by Martin Meredith:

• In 1980, at the age of 74 and after twenty years as the president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor “became the first African leader since independence to give up power voluntarily” (page 271).
• By the end of the 1980s, “of some 150 heads of state who had trodden the African stage, only six had voluntarily relinquished power.” Three of the six had ruled for more than twenty years (page 379).
• In 1991, “Benin became the first African state in which the army was forced from power by civilians and the first in which an incumbent president was defeated at the polls” (page 389).

Though African citizens are ultimately responsible for their own governments, they are not helped by the international aid industry which makes partners of even the most corrupt and greedy African despots. Donors shower African governments in aid money, fully aware that much of that money goes directly to the personal wealth of corrupt politicians and the accounts of officials tasked with maintaining the incumbent clique’s stranglehold on power. Nimble, savvy dictators have learned that when western donors insist on democratic reform, what they really mean is the façade or semblance of reform. Elections must be held, but a fraudulent one is just as good as a legitimate one. If somehow the fraud fails, then the backup plan is to cook an election crisis which inevitably ends with a power sharing agreement. The new vogue in African democracy, in a power sharing agreement the election itself is discarded, the incumbent remains in power, and the challenger – almost certainly the actual victor – is thrown a bone. It is the ultimate insult to democracy, made all the more revolting when lauded internationally as a restrained, peaceful governmental transition. Are Africa’s standards now so low that all the world hopes for is the electoral equivalent of a fire drill, just testing the systems to see how badly they may fail should an actual democratic transition be attempted?

Western governments willfully support Africa’s broken form of democracy. It is common rhetoric that the west cannot use its aid money to influence the outcome of foreign elections, yet it is common knowledge that aid money is siphoned by the ruling party and used to ensure an indefinite stranglehold on power. Western donors need to openly acknowledge that any contribution to an African government is indirectly a donation to the ruling party.

Recognizing that the carrot of international aid money is not working to lure African governments towards democratic reform, a stick should be found and used alongside it. One option would be for western donors to openly threaten to donate to opposition groups. Since all donations to Africa are in effect political contributions, donors should feel free to give to the candidate most likely to represent democratic values, which in Africa is almost always the challenger. Direct contributions to challengers may offset some of the enormous handicaps they often face contesting rigged elections. Ideally the incumbent would realize that only by instituting true reform would that lost money be returned.

Foreign aid has contributed to many of Africa’s most infamous catastrophes. Ethiopia’s tragic famine in the 1980s was a politically orchestrated crisis designed to weaken opposition populations; aid food and money allowed the government to turn feeding centers into concentration camps, famously draining the sea to kill the fish. At the same time, in Somalia, the government used aid money to resettle refugees related to the ruling family to some of the most fertile land in the country; the rival clan that was displaced by the refugees eventually toppled the government in 1991, igniting the war which is still burning today. During the cold war, aid was used to prop up a succession of friendly dictators throughout the continent, American money famously going to tyrants like Mobutu in the Congo and “Chairman Moe” in Liberia; both countries later imploded when the Cold War ended and America largesse ceased, pulling the footstool of aid out from under the noosed rulers. In hindsight it is easy to see how each good intention paved a few more miles of the road to hell.

But in the end the international community is not responsible for reversing Africa’s run of abominable rulers. Africans are, and if democracy continues to fail then perhaps it should be discarded. “Whenever any … government becomes destructive … it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it … [and] … when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” Many African peoples are perpetually in the course of human events calling for revolution.

The sad reality, however, is that most of Africa’s most heroic and inspiring reformers are quickly corrupted absolutely once they have won the absolute power that comes with ruling an African country. Nelson Mandela is the obvious, and perhaps the only, exception; more numerous are those who prove the rule: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, Yoweri Museveni, Isaias Afwerki, …

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Castles in the African Sky

July 10, 2009

Countries build skyscrapers to announce their ascendance. Industrialized America in the early twentieth century was the first to do so, building the first several of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Now it is the new economies of Asia and the Middle East leapfrogging each other to the top – first Malaysia, now China, Taiwan, and Dubai.

The new countries of independent Africa announced themselves differently. Colonialism taught a form of government in which one central and powerful person ruled firmly and lived lavishly. Upon independence, new states acted quickly to emulate such audacious and autocratic government. After years of grand rhetoric about equality and prosperity for all Africans, new rulers rapidly and shamelessly seized all the same trappings of power and wealth as had been enjoyed by the departing Europeans. Many of the new heads of state moved immediately into the empty homes and offices of the former colonial governors. Euphoric populations allowed and even encouraged them to do so, pleased with the obvious symbolism.

Kwame Nkrumah, who in 1957 led Ghana to become the first independent country in black Africa, occupied Christiansborg Castle. Jomo Kenyatta claimed State House, in Kenya. Other rulers constructed new, more modern, palaces and gardens. Among the most flamboyant was the one built, with foreign aid money, by Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte D’Ivoire. Most international guests reported being appalled at the grandiose estate. Ivoirians, on the hand, were proud to display such an impressive mark of independence. One local journalist wrote of the home, “It makes me thrilled to be an Ivory Coast citizen.”

The birth of the Big Man was blessed, even midwifed, by the population he would plunder. Decades later, most Africans now resent the decadence of their rulers. The ubiquitous greed and corruption of Africa’s tyrants is truly and literally heartbreaking. What is remarkable and impressive is the resilience and humor of the many millions of other Africans.

What I choose to focus on any given day largely determines whether I love or hate the continent. When I read the newspaper, which every day is full of stories of scandal and graft, I feel sad, angry, and impotent. If it is depressing even for me, I always wonder, how must my African friends feel. I can only imagine the longterm psychological consequences of such persistent political frustration and powerlessness. Immense anger and resentment must be roiling and steaming inside everyone.

Yet everyone continues to joke and to laugh. Music plays on every street, and the continent continues to dance with a full, deep vitality. It is this robust spirit which makes it so inspiring to be in Africa. As the optimism of independence faded across the continent, a senior diplomat at the Organization of African Unity lamented, “Our ancient continent is on the brink of disaster, hurtling towards the abyss of confrontation, caught in the grip of violence, sinking into the dark night of bloodshed and death … Gone are the smiles, the joys of life.” But, miraculously in my opinion, the smiles and joys are not gone. When I remember to look through the muck of politics to see them, I am very happy to be in Africa.

Sharing the Wealth

March 13, 2008


Most of Kenya rejoiced last week when Kofi Annan announced that a political agreement had been reached between Raila Odinga, who until recently insisted he was the rightful winner of last year’s presidential election, and Mwai Kibaki, who was pronounced the winner of the election and inaugurated as President.  Celebratory parading replaced violent rioting; the colors orange and navy, associated with the respective presidential candidates and their parties, reappeared after a conspicuous absence; headlines in the daily newspapers earnestly suggested that Mr Annan should be nominated for a Nobel Prize for Peace.  There have been very few dissenting voices.

The negotiated agreement calls for the creation of the post of Prime Minister.  Generally, it is said that the President will remain the Head of State, while the Prime Minister will be the leader of domestic government business.  For now, however, this is all speculative as the Constitution does not allow for a Prime Minister.  The agreement may have been signed by both Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki, but it does not become law until the Constitution is appropriately amended by Parliament.  The necessary bill has been tabled, and is currently being discussed.

Kenya has had exactly one Prime Minister; the post was held from June to December of 1963 by Jomo Kenyatta, one of the lions of African history and politics.  As Prime Minister, Mr Kenyatta was the head of the domestic government, but it was the colonial Governor who remained the Head of State.  This interim arrangement, considered a time for Kenya to ease into independence, was supposed to last until 1965.  Understandably, however, Kenya became impatient; a Constitution was hastily drafted and independence was unilaterally declared.  The post of Prime Minister was abolished and Mr Kenyatta automatically became the first President of independent Kenya, a position which, ironically, he modeled closely on the former Governor.  To this day, Kenya celebrates two versions of independence day, one on June 1, the date Kenya claimed control over its domestic affairs, and another on December 12, the date the Constitution was adopted and international independence was announced.  The Constitution has been amended 38 times since its introduction in 1963; almost all of the amendments have served to strengthen the position of the presidency, now considerably more powerful than the colonial Governor ever was.  Though it is now being fussed over considerably, in more normal modern times the Constitution is not a document which is given much thought by the politicians of Kenya.  The President’s word is the supreme law of the land.

The agreement signed last week by Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki states that the Prime Minister will be the “supervisor” of domestic government business.  In the popular conception, this has been taken to mean that the President’s role has been limited to international relations as the Head of State.  However, the agreement has given domestic powers to a Prime Minister without actually stating that they have been stripped from the President.  A very dangerous redundancy of authority has been created, and it has already become a source of contention between the two sides as the bill is being discussed in Parliament.

The headline of one of today’s cover stories asks if Kenya is moving in “Reverse Gear?”  The President has explained that though the Prime Minster may be the supervisor of government business, the Prime Minister himself will be supervised by the Vice President who will of course be supervised by the President.  It was assumed that Mr Annan’s negotiations were meant to create happy equals, or at least near equals, of Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki, but in the President’s view, the Prime Minister is not even the equal of the Vice President.  The Prime Minister, of course, disagrees.

The immediate shortterm squabbling is to be expected, but Mr Odinga and Mr Kibaki will resolve their stalemate.  Unfortunately, the solution is not likely to satisfy anyone seeking change or even compromise.  There simply isn’t enough political will or even national interest to sustain a longterm opposition.  The spoils are so great that most politicians are pretty quickly subsumed into the political establishment.  Members of Parliament in Kenya are among the best paid in the world; they claim that their disgusting salaries are necessary to make them incorruptible.  It is simply not in anyone’s selfish interest to continue bickering.  Soon they will agree to shut up and get to the business of collecting their pay checks, in peace.