Healing Africa

2008-08-21 00:00

Somalia, where there is no central authority, where law has broken down irretrievably and where life is cheap, is the worst example of a failed African state. The majority of African countries, apart from South Africa, have not totally collapsed, but they are not great successes either — except for Mauritius and Botswana. Most of the rest plod along aimlessly. Some have incredibly high economic growth rates, such as the oil-producing countries Angola, Nigeria and Sudan. These growth rates are concentrated only in selected areas within these countries.

A small elite — those connected to the ruling party and a few foreign partner companies — benefit mostly from such commodity-generated growth. The areas of selected growth, when combined with the vast sea of underdevelopment and poverty, cancel out the growth rate. In such countries the political system is thoroughly corrupt. The ruling party is a patronage machine, dividing the spoils between its different factions. The ruling parties are controlled by a few leading figures who run their different factions. Most of the money, power and influence are concentrated in the hands of the narrow ruling elite who are sometimes drawn from the same ethnic group or a coalition of the leading ethnic groups, their families, friends and hangers-on.

There are, of course, individuals, civil organisations and perhaps a media house here and there, that are vainly trying to make a difference, but their efforts are drowned out. The ruling party leaders cloak their slogans in revolutionary-sounding themes, evoking the anti-colonial struggle and they talk freely about building democracy, about developing their countries, about building institutions and about “imperialist” and “neo-colonial” Western powers that exploit their countries.

Yet, except for token developments, a stadium here, a school there or a road to the airport, to keep the pretence of progress going, these ruling parties have no coherent programmes and no political will or genuine interest in developing their countries. Only “approved” leaders rise to senior ranks. The leaders of these ruling parties gate-keep entry into their ranks, often co-opting those with the potential to rally the masses against the government’s indifference.

Those who resist co-option and remain committed to breaking the political patronage machine are quickly marginalised. When some parties that were previously liberation movements with armed wings get into government, they usually have youth sections that they transform into militias to attack government critics.

The leadership of these ruling parties is not renewed with fresh blood, ideas and policies. The ruling elites allow opposition parties in, to a point, to keep up the pretence of being a “multiparty” democracy that will please donors and allow them to designate their countries as being democratic. Within these ruling parties there is often intense behind-the-scene jockeying for control between power blocs that are only interested in becoming the leading faction of the main distributor of patronage.

Often the opposition is so irrelevant — they have no concrete policies directed towards the majority and their leadership is so unrepresentative — that it’s a joke. Where the opposition is serious and relevant, they are brutally suppressed. In places where governments change hands — usually in countries that are less commodity-flush — it is just a different group, with the same instincts, that takes over. Opposition parties that do take over are often populists, who end up being as corrupt as their predecessors. This was the case of Frederick Chiluba, the former trade unionist, who became the president of Zambia before being outvoted.

Between the old gang and the new one the choices for long-suffering citizens are limited. Many citizens have, to all intents and purposes, given up on change.

Those from outside the ruling elite, who managed to escape poverty through securing the few places left for outsiders through the public education system, look for greener pastures abroad. There will be no jobs for them at home unless they bribe their way into one. Those without education, but who are young and determined to escape this cycle, also try their luck abroad.

This means that the most gifted, committed and eager to make a difference are continually driven out. Unless there is dramatic change quite quickly, the majority of African countries will continue like this, while the East and the West develop faster, leaving most of Africa as a marginalised and isolated part of the world, where oil and commodities are extracted by paying bribes to politicians and strongmen.

The only way to change these ossified ruling parties is if they are completely overhauled from inside out, becoming not only more democratic, but having a new generation of leaders. Some parties are so atrophied they may have to be shut down.

In Mauritius in the seventies new political parties were formed from the ruling Labour Party which set that country on its growth and development trajectory. There is a flicker of hope in the new indigenous civil movements that are starting to mushroom on the continent. If things are going to change, new political parties will have to be formed from this generation of civil movements, in combination with some of the old political groups and movements that have not yet been corrupted.

If nothing happens, the future for many African countries looks very bleak.

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