Winner-take-all the bane of Africa

Richard Dowden
The Nation (Nairobi)
August 4, 2005

Nairobi: 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, and 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 25 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.

African states, with a few exceptions, have no common understanding of nationhood. Their flags, national anthems, and identities were created by outsiders. Patriotism, in the good sense of positive loyalty to one’s country, is in short supply.

Private bank account

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 President Robert Mugabe, and many others.

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 the 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 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 he seems determined to change the constitution to extend his rule.

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 President Mwai Kibaki. Two years on, Kenya seems to have become even more corrupt than before.

Then there are the big holes on the map: The 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 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 donor money.

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.

Second, the West should look closely at the “external” dimension of corruption in Africa. Britain has resisted signing the UN 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.

Reform immigration policy

Third, the west must stop encouraging the brain-drain from Africa. There are said to be more Malawian nurses in England’s Birmingham than in Malawi itself, a country ravaged by HIV/Aids.

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 must reform its immigration policy. Thousands of Africans living in Britain or trying to come here 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 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. All these points were touched on in the Commission for Africa report, published in March 2005. At its launch, Premier 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.

Mr Dowden is director of the Royal Africa Society

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