BOOK REVIEW: Making Africa Work

One can’t fault the authors for ambition with the book Making Africa work but it certainly reads more like a manifesto rather than a book - even for the non-fiction category.

There is no shortage of political celebrity endorsement for this tome and it makes some great points, but fails to, at the outset, consider that African problems have huge legacies and despite the efforts over decades, African challenges have so far eluded some of best minds.

Authors Gregg Mills, Jeffery Herbst and Dickie Davis are linked through their mutual associations at the Brenthurst Foundation (established by the Oppenheimer family) and Olusegun Obasanjo is the star contributor as former president of Nigeria.

The book aims to provide pragmatic steps for policy makers to re-energise the African economy through collective market friendly policies, resulting in Asian Tiger-like growth for a growing African population.

Our own President Thabo Mbeki tried with his proposed African Renaissance but failed to hold presidents-for-life accountable for the welfare of their countries.

Common theme

And this brings us to the most common theme of the book: In many different ways, the authors advise political leadership to tackle corruption.

Not that they say it in so many words, but corruption in Africa is probably the single biggest contributor to the fact that despite the mineral wealth of the continent, billions are siphoned off through ineptitude and corruption.

Presidents like Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo and our neighbour Robert Mugabe have clearly overstayed their welcome, but it seems that there is no political process where they would relinquish power.

It says much about the character of Nelson Mandela and Mbeki that they stepped away from power, with using state resources to entrench their rule.

Revelations like the Panama papers make it clear that the global tax haven industry is complicit in helping to rob African countries and undermine development.

The book makes it easy for policy makers to read because of its layout. There are chapter summaries with clearly laid out SWOT analysis, followed by a more detailed expansion of the point.

Indeed, the book comes with endorsements from heavy hitter political leaders, but despite its focus on what can be done to fix Africa, perhaps one shortcoming is to adequately name names where African states are going wrong.

One the other hand, perhaps that is a safety measure for the authors when you’re dealing with many states that could not be described as open, free societies.

South Africa shines

It is in this light where South Africa shines because, despite our acute challenges on state capture, corruption and flagrant violations of the law by senior politicians, the media, judiciary and Chapter 9 institutions are active and functional – certainly leading in their roles on the continent.

Making Africa work fails though as a book that can be easily digested by the casual reader.

Written as a thesis rather than a narrative, the book is packed to the brim with referenced facts and information that only the most meticulous reader will follow up for accuracy.

Then again, it is unlikely that someone so knowledgeable would read the book in the first place.

Endorsements from people such as former Malawian president Joyce Banda, former president of the African Development Bank Donald Kaberuka and former Zimbabwean finance minister Tendai Biti indicate that the book is aimed squarely at policy makers.

But if you get past the slow going fact fest, there are some truly entertaining narratives from people such as Obasanjo, which give you insight into the challenges of running a country on the continent.

The authors compare the rise of the Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia to Africa in terms of their economies. It's a fair point.

Vietnam and Indonesia both achieved independence in 1945, while a number of African countries won their independence in the 1960s, but Africa as a whole is not catching up to Asia.

Patronage, corruption, debt

In his thesis, Why has Asia Succeeded While Africa has not? For Georgetown University, John A Morrell writes that "African societies are plagued with inadequate, unresponsive, obtuse, and corrupt public institutions".

Indeed, the fact that many African economies rely on commodities which are subject to serious price fluctuations has a detrimental effect on stable economic growth.

This, compounded by patronage, corruption and massive debt puts African economies constantly on the back foot.

However, many countries are also massive, compared to their Asian counterparts (except China), and with weak central governments, these countries like Nigeria, Sudan, DRC, Chad and others cannot effectively enforce the rule of law outside of major centres, creating an opportunity for corruption to thrive.

Making Africa work then, is a handbook as it says on the box, but perhaps it is not on the correct readers' bookshelves.

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