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The laughing stock of Africa

Robert Mugabe is smiling this week. Despite all the furore over the England cricket team’s World Cup boycott, despite the courage of Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wearing black armbands, and despite the millions starving in his country, it has been a good week for the Zimbabwean president. A very good week indeed.

Mugabe has his fellow African leaders — namely South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo — to thank for lightening his mood. They make up two of the three members of the Commonwealth ‘troika’ that is to decide whether or not Zimbabwe’s current suspension is renewed or not.

But thanks to Mbeki and Obasanjo no decision now needs to be made. They have declined to meet with the third troika member — John Howard of Australia — and called for Zimbabwe to be readmitted to full membership. With the Commonwealth so openly divided it seems inconceivable that the suspension could now be renewed. Cheers all round in the inner sanctums of Mugabe’s brutal regime.

Without lifting a finger, without reforming one iota, without apologising for the hundreds of deaths his rule has called, Mugabe is to be welcomed back into the international fold. What a great day for Mugabe; what a tragic day for Africa.

Mbeki took the — slightly surreal — trouble of informing Howard via a payphone in Hawaii, where the Australian leader was passing through the airport. When an indignant Howard revealed the details of the phone call outraged South African officials quickly condemned such a leak. Mbeki’s representative blustered that the South African president ”regrets very much that the prime minister [Howard] has publicly made these remarks.”

There was no mention of the rights and wrongs of the action. No mention of the fact that Zimbabwe is plummeting towards the terrible fate of repression and collapse that has befallen so much of Africa. No, there was just outrage that such an appalling decision and the callously casual attitude of Mbeki should be made public. After spending four years living and working as a journalist in Africa and visiting 20 countries on that most fantastic of continents, it pains me not in the slightest to call such a situation entirely typical. Of course, it used to pain me a lot. But that was a long time ago. Experience changes everything.

The fact is that Africa is a tragic place. Unbelievably tragic. It is racked by war, corruption, Aids, famine and repression. Yet Africa’s leaders do very little to alleviate this situation. And when they get the chance to take action against the obvious misrule of one of their number, they let him off the hook with platitudes and a pat on the back. Africa’s political leaders — with a tiny handful of exceptions — are worthy of little but international contempt. They are a cosy mens’ club — and they are ALL men — whose members only look after their own.

But the sad fact is that outside their own continent Africa’s politicians have become a laughing stock. Witness the African Union, the successor to that other most pointless of international bodies, the Organisation of African Unity (whose brotherly members bickered and fought civil wars for four decades). Among the African Union’s laudable and yet entirely implausible aims, are a pan-African army, a pan-African currency and the eventual creation of an EU-style superstate on the African continent.

The fact that Africa cannot feed or educate millions of its own people seems secondary to such lofty ideals. The brains behind the African Union is Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. As a result Libya now has troops ‘peace-keeping’ in the Central African Republic. But, late last year, details emerged of a deal between Libya and the impoverished CAR emerged that gave Libya the right to exploit oil and mineral resources in the country for 99 years. In return Libya provides ‘security’ for CAR President Ange-Felix Patasse. It is the same old story of corruption and power. Nowhere in these deals or organisations, or these political decisions or discussions, do the real needs of Africa’s ordinary human citizens ever figure.

Five years ago there was much talk — led by Mbeki — of an African Renaissance. Of a new generation of African leaders who would throw off the old corrupt post-independence regimes and lead Africa to a new beginning. It simply has not happened. Since then the Congo — whose brutal former leader Laurent Kabila was heralded as key to the renaissance — has fallen apart. Squabbling over its riches at one point attracted armies from no fewer than six other African countries.

Somalia has now gone 12 years with no form of government and no prospect of getting one. Ivory Coast — which somehow survived almost 40 years of independence as relatively peaceful and prosperous — is now gripped by not one, not two, but three warring rebel factions. Eritrea and Ethiopia have fought a two year war over a stretch of barren border territory that cost 70 000 lives and consumed millions of pounds of aid that could have fed their starving people. Across the continent 38 million people now face famine. In Africa 340 million people — or half the population — live on less than $1 a day.

In short, Africa has continued its spiral of decline. And its leaders are happily fiddling while their continent burns. In Swaziland, King Mswati III has just bought a new private jet for about $45-million. Yet a quarter of his country needs food aid, 22% of them have HIV, and the entire Swazi health budget is about $20.3-million. In Namibia, President Sam Nujoma has been so inspired by the ‘success’ of Mugabe’s landgrabbing that he is threatening to do the same in his country. He has also banned foreign programmes from television, denounced Christianity as a foreign philosophy and called for a revival of ancestral worship of cattle gods.

In an interview late last year with respected German southern African journalist Thomas Knemeyer, Nujoma ranted and raved like a madman. The interview was so bizarre that Knemeyer’s paper, Die Weld, printed a full transcript. At one point Nujoma took umbrage that in a previous article Knemeyer had mentioned his purchase of a private presidential jet. This is what Nujoma shouted: ”We are entitled to travel by jet just like other people. If you go to Germany you find all over jets, even private people have them, and therefore the Republic of Namibia cannot buy a jet? That is arrogance, arrogance.”

No, Mr President, it is not arrogance. What is arrogance is that the President of one of the poorest countries in the world thinks a good use of public funds is buying himself a private plane.

Of course, many people on the left and indeed African leaders themselves blame the disastrous situation that Africa is experiencing on the old evils of colonialism. African nations, they say, just weren’t given the chance to develop naturally. Their borders are all wrong. They were drawn by colonial officials at European desks with no mind to facts on the ground.

That, of course, is true. The borders that define Africa are a reflection of colonial prejudice. But then again, whose job is it to change them? It is Africa’s. Yet among the first resolutions the OAU ever passed was the decision to keep them. The African Union has not changed that. If colonial borders were such a crippling handicap then Africa’s independent nations have had four decades to change them. They haven’t budged them one inch.

And the myth that African nations’ multi-ethnicity has hampered them also needs exploding. There is only country which has an entirely homogenous population, whose people speak the same language, worship the same religion and which has no ethnic minorities. This country’s name? Somalia. Somalia is no advert for African unity. In the once pretty market town of Baidoa, where every building has been destroyed, I went shopping accompanied by gun-toting guards in three pick-ups manned by militiamen. It was the only safe way to go out on the streets. I met several Western aid workers there. They lived under these conditions every day. Of course, it still did not stop them eventually being kidnapped. Thankfully, they were not killed.

Three years ago The Economist magazine ran a cover story called ”Africa: the hopeless continent”. It caused outrage from the Cape to Khartoum. This is typical. Criticism of Africa is regularly derided as racist or neo-imperialist. African politicians use the tragedies of Africa’s past as a catch-all excuse to explain its current tragedies. They use such labels to cover their own misdeeds, corruption, war-mongering and incompetence.

One facet of their argument is to look at the structures of world trade. There is no doubt that the west is deeply hypocritical. While demanding that African nations take down their trade barriers to Western goods, they do not allow Africa into their own markets. While deriding Africa’s state-controlled economies, they fail to reform the massive subsidies and protectionism that keeps numerous Western industries — especially farming — alive. It is hardly a level playing field. But then why does Africa expect it to be? Africa has become so used to being treated as a special case, to being tolerated and patronised by the west, that it has developed an immensely damaging dependency culture.

Which raises the thorniest issue in modern Africa today. Does international aid do more harm than good? Last month, I was travelling through Eritrea reporting on the threat of famine. I came across two makeshift huts side by side sitting in a dry and windy valley. Inside each lived a family. There were no men present. The Eritrean government in its wisdom had inducted them all into military service. The women and children were all sick. They had been unable to harvest crops. Their nearest well was dry. They relied on monthly food aid of oil and maize flour to survive.

But what was even more shocking was that they had been relying on this aid for two years. Since long before the drought and long before the government stole their men. In effect all that the aid had done was to keep these families in a ”suspended animation” of poverty. Without it, they would have moved years previously. They would have abandoned their failing farms for a town. Perhaps that would have exposed them to crime and Aids. But it also could have exposed them to jobs, to a monetary economy, to the chance of improving themselves.

Aid also removes responsibility from African governments. If the international community will feed a country’s population, support its schools and run its clinics, then the government does not have to. It can feel free to spend its cash on arms and self-enrichment, on the sort of grandiose schemes — steel plants, dams, new capital cities — that provide opportunities for skimming off the top.

Of course, Africa has no monopoly on corruption. Britain has its fair share. It is endemic in large parts of Asia from Korea to China. Yet corruption there does not stop development. In the 1950s South Korea was behind Kenya in a whole host of economic indicators. Now South Korea is a first world country. Yet when I lived in Kenya from 1999 to 2000 it was impossible to even drive between Nairobi and Mombasa. But what causes this? Why is Asia so different to Africa when it shares so much in terms of corruption and authoritarian rule?

Obviously, I have no truck for racist nonsense. Living in Africa is hard. It requires harder work, more skill and more intelligence than any average Westerner can imagine. Let us shelve racist arguments of innate capabilities in the dustbin where they belong. Instead there seems something fundamentally wrong, not with Africans, but with African political culture. The problem with Africa is simply African government.

Cynical African observers fed up with the terrible way they are governed tell a joke to explain why Asia has developed as Africa has slipped backwards. It goes like this: In the 1970s a young Asian and a young African go to a Western university together. They study and become firm friends before returning to their home countries to take up careers in their respective governments.

Twenty years later the African decides to visit his old friend and catches a plane. The Asian is delighted to see him and proudly shows off his fine house, swimming pool and two flashy cars in the drive. The African is impressed and congratulates him. The Asian smiles and points out of the window to a huge highway in the distance. ”Can you see that road project?” he asks. He rubs his hands and winks before saying: ”Ten percent”.

The next year the Asian returns the visit. The African’s house is twice as big as his. He has two pools and a fleet of cars and an army of servants. The Asian is amazed. ”But you have done better than me?” he cries. The African nods and points out of the window. The Asian looks and there is nothing but thick, unbroken African bush. The African winks and rubs his hands. ”100 percent,” he says.

In Africa, as the infamous Economist article pointed out, the ‘shell state’ has come into being. These are countries which have been destroyed so thoroughly by their own government’s corruption that they effectively no longer exist. In Congo vast tracts of the country are cut off, to all intents and purposes slipping back into an age before the first European explorers set foot there.

In Europe, South America and Asia corruption does not prevent the general progress of development. In Africa it is so endemic that it halts it, and can even send it in to reverse. I remember travelling in the heart of southern Sudan down a raised mud road that provided the only lifeline to a huge region of rural bush. I asked the driver of my rebel convoy who had built the road. ”The British,” he said. ”Before World War Two.”Nothing had been built there since, despite the billions of dollars of aid that has poured into Sudan since independence in the 1950s.

In Burundi I have seen the ruined villas of Belgian planters now covered by jungle or converted into subsistence farms. Those colonial relics are a reminder of a brutal and violent political system, but they also represented the chance for economic progress and a glimpse of First World potential. But Burundi slipped into chaos and war. Now the once beautiful lake towns of central Africa — Bukavu and Goma — are more associated with genocide than the genteel 1950s tourism that once made their names.

The end result of all this misery has been the greatest tragedy of all: Africa has made itself irrelevant. Why should we take leaders like Sam Nujoma and Robert Mugabe seriously? The west still has many hypocrisies of its own — not least over its selective championing of free trade — but it is also rapidly shrugging off its guilt at colonialism and looking at Africa with a judgemental eye.

And Africa’s politicians have been found wanting. They have nothing to offer the west or their own people. They are willing to sell off their country’s resources for their own benefit. While the world debates the War on Terror and the potential war in Iraq, Africa is slipping into an anonymous abyss of its own making. No one in the west is going to pull it out.

The centre of discussions on Africa’s future is the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad). This is a deal whereby African countries would commit to principles of good governance in exchange for debt relief and aid. I am all for debt relief. It is the aid bit that bothers me. Why do African governments need to be bribed to behave well? And after all, the main proponent of Nepad is Mbeki. The very man who is so keen to let Mugabe’s crimes go unpunished and unaccounted for. Nepad is the same old problem of dependency and toleration of corruption but in a new friendly 21st century guise. We should scrap all debts and we should scrap all official aid as well.

But where would that leave Africa? Well, it would leave the continent exactly where it should be: with the Africans. Aid will not solve Africa’s problems. Nor will the West. The only people who can solve the problems of Africa, who can change their leaders, who can end corruption, who can make Africa rich and educated, who can end the African wars, who can make Africa relevant again, are Africans themselves. It is time Africa started to take itself seriously. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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