Dreaming in Durban

However strenuous our leaders’ efforts to steer our continent out of its morass of underdevelopment, poverty, disease and civil strife, their strategy is based on such shaky assumptions that they are likely to achieve little progress.

Put politely, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) — to which Presidents Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Abdoulaye Wade and others have put their names — is nothing other than an earnest appeal to the West’s conscience for help. It is an attempt to cut a deal with an uninterested G8 that knows very well that the Africans haven’t even the splinter of a bargaining chip on the table. No matter what illusions we Africans might entertain, Nepad can become functional only at the whim of the rich nations.

What is perhaps more surprising is that, even as they implore the rich to bankroll their plans, Mbeki and Co do not stop to consider the harm their continued association with the likes of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe does to their cause. That is, what harm this relationship does to the image they want to cultivate of themselves as an African leadership imbued with fresh thinking. To put it simply: why would anyone bail out the relatives of a man (Mugabe) who is busy clobbering their own relatives (Zimbabwean whites)? And, let us not forget, this time there is no Soviet Union to turn to if the West ignores our overtures for help.

According to many analysts, the African Union (AU), of which Nepad is to be the lodestar, also does not appear to be the product of hard-nosed thinking, or of an assessment of what can and cannot be achieved. At worst, they see it as the Organi- sation of African Unity (OAU) by another name. Like its predecessor, the AU operations will be seriously hobbled by African governments’ lack of institutional, organisational and financial capacity.

But these problems — serious though they are — are not the most significant.

The major obstacles to the African quest for development, modernity and the betterment of African lives are the socio-economic and political complexities the continent has to navigate before it even arrives at the start line.

This is not to pour cold water on the genuine efforts to map a way towards a better future for us. This article is merely the contribution to the debate by one African citizen — one member of a citizenry whose interests usually, curiously, slip below the radar in the rarefied atmosphere of presidential discussions to hatch big plans.

An appraisal of the continent’s post-colonial history provides grounds for serious doubts about the efficacy of the latest efforts to find solutions to African problems.

Tanzania’s first president, the late Julius Nyerere, noted in the 1980s: “While the rest of the world has become urbanised, Africa is going back to the [traditional] village.” Perhaps Nyerere, a thinker who for all his faults had never been known for a lack of candour, was acknowledging what a shambolic failure his Ujamaa (collective villagisation) had turned out to be. But at least Nyerere, unlike most of his less savoury contemporary rulers, had the good grace to acknowledge criticism and to step down after this failure and to let others have a crack at running Tanzania.

Ujamaa did not, and could not, work; a similar project by the Ethio-pian autocrat Haile Mengistu Mariam failed; and so did left-leaning strategies by so-called African socialist heads of state such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Uganda’s Milton Obote, Guinea’s Sekou Toure and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda to nationalise their countries’ industries and enterprises. The reasons Africa’s flirtations with socialist- or communist-inspired ideologies failed were not solely those that led to the failure of these approaches elsewhere.


Communism, socialism, Marxism and state-controlled African economies generally failed for much the same reasons that democracy on the Western model, capitalism and the free market, failed on African soil: these approaches were not rooted in any African thinking. They were at odds with realities on the ground, having been imported wholesale from outsiders. It did not matter whether they were transposed forcibly or voluntarily.

As for those African states that began as parliamentary democracies but ended up failing, a number of historians have argued plausibly that the democratic political framework was an artificial construct. That construct was hastily put in place by the departing colonial powers and readily embraced by the nationalists as the price they had to pay to be entrusted with control over newly independent states.

These impositions, alongside the economic non-viability of most of the new African states, and the woeful inadequacy of skilled labour to get both the public and private sectors running properly, meant Africa already was in big trouble barely a decade into independence.

The oil crisis of the Seventies, and the steep decline in the prices of the commodities that were (and still are) Africa’s principal export — coffee, cocoa, tea and so on — precipitated Africa’s reversion to the form of government it was evolving before contact with outsiders a century or more earlier. That is the practice of patronage, whereby politics was organised around the establishment of patron/client networks fed by resources from the state (whatever form it took).

At a different time and in other circumstances Africans might well have evolved more suitable systems of governance out of patronage. However, by the late 20th century, others had already imposed their order of things on the world — an order that tolerated little that was different. And the African politics of patronage was not among the favoured departures from the norm. For the main raison d’être of patronage was to display wealth ostentatiously, while the patron sought simultaneously to satisfy voracious client networks whose compliance was required for him to retain power. The patron was not seeking to create an environment in which wealth could be accumulated in order to invest productively. This being so, Africa’s politics of patronage produced catastrophic results in the late 20th century.

For starters, the army, the police, the judiciary and other such political artefacts introduced by the colonial masters soon found a new use. They became the instruments by which the patron or the chief (who was now glorified by new titles such as president, prime minister or commander-in-chief) could appropriate more of the state’s resources to himself, his immediate family, loyal retainers and so on.

In time national resources that had once been sufficient to keep a critical mass of the population contented dwindled. In these new circumstances the army was called on not to take on a foreign enemy but to mount violent reprisals against citizens clamouring for more jobs, more freedom of speech and more rights in other areas of life. Madmen like Uganda’s Idi Amin and the Central African Republic’s Jean-BÃ

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