Rich country, poor citizens – the scourge of bad African governance

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Children sit on buckets in a township. Photo: Alfonso Nqunjana/News24
Children sit on buckets in a township. Photo: Alfonso Nqunjana/News24

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It is impossible, even if one were sitting in a roomful of enlightened economists, politicians, lawyers and social scientists, to reach a consensus on the definition and causes of poverty.

There are those who claim poverty is a mental state, as others insist poverty is a manifestation of idleness. However, having traversed the length and breadth of Africa, I am convinced poverty exists in the realm of reality, more so a physical state of humanity.

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In as much as you can see blatant wealth when it confronts you, abject poverty needs no interpretation in its tangibility. In whatever forum one sits where economic and resource dynamics of Africa are debated, one thing seems to gravitate toward a consensus – that Africa is richly endowed with both natural and human resources.

The question then is: if a country, or a continent has so much at its disposal, why are its citizens afflicted with abject poverty?

Dambisa Moyo, one of Africa’s leading economic thought leaders, in her best-selling book Dead Aid, ascribes Africa’s poverty to poisonous benevolence disguised as aid money from Western countries.

When she wrote the book about 20 years ago, Western aid to Africa was probably computed in the billions of dollars. With the entry of China into the “dead aid race”, it is possible that aid and grant money – some of it camouflaged as “development funding” – currently runs into trillions of dollars.

Apart from chocking under a heavy soapstone of debt, Africa still screams for budgetary support despite sitting on trillions worth of minerals, oil and the world’s largest young population. As an example, my country Zimbabwe is facing perennial default to a US$20 billion foreign and domestic debt, yet we do not just boast of more than 30 world-class minerals, but we are also probably in the top five exporters of platinum, lithium and tobacco. Not to mention some of the world’s glamorous tourist destinations such as the Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe Ruins and the Hwange National Park.

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Yet three quarters of Zimbabwe’s adult population is not only unemployed, but also labours under a yoke of informal piece jobs that cannot yield three meals a day, cannot afford one medical aid, life insurance, primary school education or even public transport. If one compounds the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic with irregular rain seasons, Zimbabwean citizens now rank among the poorest in the world – here we are talking food insecure and perforated disposable incomes in a highly inflationary environment.

Ironically, the ruling oligarchs and their few government acolytes boast millions of dollars stashed in overseas accounts.

Public hospitals have neither adequate personnel nor sufficient drugs. Pupils photocopy books, while teachers and nurses remain on permanent strike alert. Food prices and the cost of living are driven by an expensive US dollar competing against dysfunctional local Zimbabwe dollar currency policy. It is impossible to fathom how a country not at conventional war – except with its own people – can have millions of poor citizens.

This takes me to one conclusion: Africa suffers from bad political governance, corruption and arrogant leaders who consider power as entitlement. In real terms, bad national governance and manipulative electoral processes ultimately result in poverty.

However, do not rule out Richard Auty’s resource curse or theory of the paradox of plenty . Perhaps Moyo is correct that Africa does not require aid, but her theory has been trashed by icons such as Bill Gates and Bob Geldof who insist the “civilised world” cannot stand in awe as fellow humans in Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) suffer.

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But why are we Africans always quick to resolve conflicts with AK47s? Who really benefits from the wars in the DRC, Mali, Cameron, Ethiopia and South Sudan?

If you follow the perennial conflicts in north-eastern DRC closely, you will concur that both Uganda and Rwanda want to have a say in how that country’s resources are distributed.

Such proxy wars, instigated by external provocateurs who benefit from chaos and weak national governments, enrich a few generals while impoverishing millions of Africans.

The AU and its surrogate regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Cooperation seem powerless to resolve these crises.

The quest for self-determination in south Cameron and Ethiopia’s Tigray region is another way of causing poverty. Why? Because governments divert crucial, scarce resources to unbudgeted military expenditure.

Today, I also want to set the record straight. There are those whom I term “pseudo pan Africanists” who will inevitably point fingers at “western imperialism”, “neoliberalism” and “white capitalist interests” as the only drivers of African poverty. I disagree because this holier-than-thou theory ignores introspective self-responsibility.

If Africa reorganised its governance and production systems on the basis of market freedom, property rights, the rule of law and constitutionalism, the continent would be able to pushback any exogenous factors that militate against sustainable resource mobilisation. At least 60 million Congolese are poor, not because of France and Belgium’s colonial exploits, not even due to “imperialist tendencies” of Paul Kagame (of Rwanda) and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. They are poor because of bad, corrupt, self-centred governance in Kinshasa.

Until we Africans learn to run free and fair elections that eliminate post-electoral disputes, until we Africans adopt free market policies that encourage productive value addition of our resources, will we remain paralysed in foreign debt and intractable poverty.

Billions of dollars meant for development are spirited out of the public purse in South Africa and Zimbabwean via opaque and corrupt deals. Our governments are grossly unaccountable, corrupt and clueless in matters of liberal governance presided over by partisan, one-sided parliaments. Until we as Africans change our ways, we shall forever remain objects of pity, targets for aid and candidates of exploitative Chinese “mega deals” whose interest is taking commodities from the continent.

. Ngwenya is the founder and executive director of the Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions in Zimbabwe and writes for the Free Market Foundation.


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