Millions of black South Africans, who lack basic services such as housing, decent schools and hospitals, must toil daily to pay back the billions of dollars borrowed by former apartheid regimes to oppress them.
World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn’s self-serving piece on debt relief (“Beyond the Jubilee,” Friday, Dec 22), crowed about “real progress” in Uganda and Mozambique. But the first thing Uganda did, upon receiving debt relief, was to order a new presidential jet in 1999. Moreover, Uganda’s ever-deepening involvement in Congo’s war guarantees that any resources released by debt relief will be squandered on military expenditures.
More galling was the cynical use of a picture of a black African peasant woman clutching a baby to accompany the piece. A new World Bank poster child for debt relief? Billions of dollars were borrowed on behalf of people like her by bandit and gangster regimes without their consent or authorization. So who really owes whom? It is absurd to speak of debt relief to a people, who are technically and legally not in debt to the World Bank.
Consider Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its former dictator, the late Mobutu Sese Seko, plundered Zaire’s economy to build mansions overseas and stash billions in Swiss banks. The World Bank and the West knew of the looting and yet continued lending to Zaire. When Mobutu was ousted in 1997, he left a foreign debt of $14 billion, from which the Congolese people derived no benefit whatsoever. For the Bank to portray itself as generous of heart, forgiving the debt of, say, the Congolese people, is an affront to logic. Legitimate debts can be reduced or forgiven, but not “odious debts.”
In 1898 when the U.S. captured Cuba from Spain, the Spanish government demanded the repayment of Cuba’s debts. But the US refused, claiming that the debt had been “imposed upon the people of Cuba without their consent and by force of arms. The creditors, from the beginning, took the chance of the investment.” This doctrine of “odious debts” was also successfully applied in 1923 when the Royal Bank of Canada sought to recover debt from a new government in Costa Rica. Chief Justice Taft of the U.S. Supreme Court, the arbitrator, ruled that the debt was not legitimate because the Royal Bank of Canada knew that this money was to be used by the retiring president, Federico Tinoco, for his own personal support.
South Africa is particularly excised about its foreign debt that exceeds $71 billion. Millions of black South Africans, who lack basic services such as housing, decent schools and hospitals, must toil daily to pay back the billions of dollars borrowed by former apartheid regimes to oppress them. In 1997, Alternative Information and Development Center (AIDC), a non-governmental organization based in Cape Town launched a campaign against this odious debt, targeting international financiers such as the World Bank and the IMF.
Even the U.S. Congress, the Bank’s major trustee, is rebelling against a “dubious” debt of over $1.3 million owed to the United Nations in past dues and overdue assessments for operations. Why shouldn’t Africans rebel against “odious debts”?
George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D.
President, The Free Africa Foundation
George B.N. Ayittey, Washington Post, December 28, 2001