Africa is writing new rules for the game

2011-02-19 10:53

I spent March last year with a delegation of activists, entrepreneurs and policy wonks roaming western, southern and eastern Africa trying very hard to listen for a big-mouthed Irishman. With duct tape over my gob, I was able to pick up some interesting melody lines everywhere, from ­palace to pavement.

Despite the almost deafening roar of excitement about Africa’s hosting of the soccer World Cup, we managed to hear a surprising thing, harmony, flowing from two sides that in the past have often been discordant: Africa’s emerging entrepreneurial class and its civil-society activists.

It’s no secret that lefty ­campaigners can be cranky about business elites. And the suspicion is mutual. Civil society as a rule sees business as a little uncivil, whereas business tends to see ­activists as a little too active.

But in Africa, at least from what I’ve seen, this is starting to change.

The energy of these opposing forces coming together is filling ­offices, boardrooms and bars.

The reason is that both these groups see poor governance as the biggest obstacle they face. So they are working together on redefining the rules of the African game.

This joining of forces is being driven by some luminous ­personalities, few of whom are known in the US but ought to be.

Let me first introduce you to a few of the catalysts: John Githongo, Kenya’s famous whistleblower, who was hired by his government to clean things up and then did his job too well, has now started a group called Inuka, which teams up the urban poor with business leaders to create inter-ethnic community alliances;

DJ Rowbow, a Mike ­Tyson doppelgänger whose ­station, Ghetto Radio, was a voice of reason when the post-election ethnic tension exploded in Kenya in 2008; and Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, who owns a newspaper and at the end of last year launched his own TV station, is creating the soundtrack for change, and he knows just how to use his voice.

In Maputo, Mozambique, I met with Activa, a women’s group that, among other things, helps entrepreneurs get seed capital.

Private and public sectors mix easily here under the leadership of Luisa ­Diogo, the country’s former prime minister, who is now Mozambique’s matriarch.

When I met with Diogo and her group, the less famous but equally voluble women in the room complained about excessive interest rates on their microfinance loans and the lack of what they called ­“regional economic integration.” For them, infrastructure remains the big (if unsexy) issue.

The true star of the trip was a ­human hurricane, Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese entrepreneur who made a fortune in cellphones.

I fantasised about being the boy wonder to his Batman, but as we toured the continent together I quickly realised I was Alfred, ­Batman’s butler.

Everywhere we went, I was ­elbowed out of the way by young and old who wanted to get close to the rock-star reformer and his beautiful, frighteningly smart daughter, Hadeel, who runs Mo’s foundation and is a chip off the old block.

Mo’s speeches are standing-room-only because even when he is sitting down, he’s a standing-up kind of person.

In a packed hall in the University of Ghana, he was a prizefighter, removing his tie and jacket like a cape, punching young minds into the future.

His brainchild, the Ibrahim Prize, is a very generous endowment for African leaders who serve their people well and then – and this is crucial – leave office when they are supposed to.

Mo smokes a pipe and refers to everyone as “guys” – as in: ­“Listen, guys, if these problems are of our own making, the solutions will have to be, too.”
Or, in my direction: “Guys, if you haven’t noticed, you are not ­African.”

Oh yeah, and: “Guys, you Americans are lazy investors. There’s so much growth here but you want to float in the shallow ­water of the Dow Jones or Nasdaq.”

Ibrahim is as searing about corruption north of the equator as he is about corruption south of it.

So I was listening but did I ­actually learn anything?

Over long days and nights, I asked Africans about the course of international activism.

Should we just pack it up and go home, I asked?

There were a few nods but many more “nos”, because most Africans we met seemed to feel the pressing need for new kinds of partnerships; not just among governments but among citizens, businesses and the rest of us.

I sense the end of the usual donor-recipient relationship.

Aid, it’s clear, is still part of the picture. It’s crucial if you have HIV and are fighting for your life, or if you are a mother wondering why you can’t protect your child.

“Make aid history” is the objective. It always was.

Because when we end aid, it’ll mean that extreme poverty is history.

But until that glorious day, smart aid can be a ­reforming tool, demanding ­accountability and transparency while rewarding measurable ­results and reinforcing the rule of law, but never imagining for a second that it’s a substitute for trade, investment or self-determination.

I for one want to live to see Mo Ibrahim’s throw-down prediction about Ghana come true.

“Yes, guys,” he said, “Ghana needs support in the coming years, but in the not-too-distant future it can be ­giving aid, not receiving it; and you, Mr Bono, can just go there on your holidays.”

I’m booking that ticket.

In South Africa, with Madiba – the person whom, along with Desmond Tutu and The Edge, I consider to be my boss – I raised the ­question of regional integration through the African Development Bank, and the need for real investment in infrastructure.

As Madiba smiled, I made a note to try not to talk about this stuff down at the pub – or in front of the band.

“And you, are you not going to the World Cup?” the great man chided me, changing the subject, having seen this wide-eyed zealotry before.

“You are getting old and you are going to miss a great ­coming-out party for Africa.”

My family and I headed home just in time. I was getting carried away. I was “going native”, aroused by the thought of railroads and ­cement mixers, of a different kind of World Cup fever, of opposing players joining the same team, a new formation, new tactics.

For those of us in the fan club, I came away amazed (as I always am) by the diversity of the continent but with a deep sense that the people of Africa are writing up some new rules for the game.

» Bono is a contributing columnist for The New York Times.© 2011 Bono/ The New York Times.

Distributed by The NYT Syndicate

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