Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is an impressive speaker who has great ideas about African development. Every year he eloquently welcomes leaders of the African Union (AU) who gather in his country for the heads of state summits.
The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was born on May 25 1963, today remembered as Africa Day, in Ethiopia.
Last month Zenawi also had the rare privilege of playing host to the World Economic Forum’s Africa meeting, held for the first time in Addis Ababa. He talks easily about agriculture, intra-African trade and Chinese state-led capitalism.
Is he perhaps the model of the enlightened African leader who will ensure the continent’s people are propelled to another level of development and prosperity?
Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most populous countries, boasts record growth of between 8% and 11%. It also has a romantic history that draws starry-eyed tourists to its religious sites in Lalibela and Gondar and an athletics team that will hopefully do Africa proud at the London Olympics in July.
Overwhelmed by the poverty
I thought about this as I looked out of the window from the eighth floor of my hotel at daybreak one morning earlier this year. No matter what the growth rates are, you cannot be in Addis Ababa without being overwhelmed by the poverty of people on the streets.
I stared with mixed feelings at the inhabitants in ragged clothes starting their day, emerging from shack-like abodes and struggling along mostly terrible roads.
Admittedly, scaffolding is everywhere and among the shacks rise lofty office buildings, many with billboards in Chinese. But is this really the best place to showcase Africa and house the seat of the AU?
Everyone knows there is hardly any semblance of democracy in Ethiopia – journalists and opposition leaders are regularly jailed and the military is feared across the region.
“You talk about food; we need freedom!” shouted a protester who slipped through security at the G8 summit earlier this week while Zenawi was participating in a debate on stage. The man is seen on a YouTube video shouting from the back of the hall.
Freedom before food. Why not both?
Last year, when the domino effect of the Arab Spring raged through North Africa and heads rolled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, everyone had a rethink about where Africa was and where it was going. Could it happen here, many in sub-Saharan Africa were wondering. For now, apart from a few quickly suppressed demonstrations on the streets of Kampala and Luanda, popular protest to force undemocratic leaders to step down has not taken off.
One of the lessons of the Arab uprisings for African governments is probably that relative economic prosperity (North Africa had a far higher human development index than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa) without political freedom is not sustainable in the long run – not if people are educated and have access to Al Jazeera.
But are African leaders in 2012 dedicated to bringing more democracy? Or is the trend towards Zenawi’s “authoritarian developmentalism”, as Richard Dowden from the Royal African Society reminds us? Will they do everything possible to co-opt any opposition into the ruling party and rely on ethnic, class and other divisions to separate the ruling elite from a disempowered citizenry?
In many places, civil society and opposition parties, if they are mature and organised, are increasingly forcing democracy to happen. In Senegal earlier this year, people tried to do just that. Although street power did not persuade former president Abdoulaye Wade not to seek a third term, solid institutions and the vigilant eye of the media and civil groups fortunately won the day and Wade lost the election fairly and squarely.
A former senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Issaka Souaré, has argued convincingly that the opposition should carry part of the blame for the lack of proper functioning democracy in Africa. At the same time, if it was given more credit and a proper place following elections, one might not see the constant post-election crises.
People also hope that the opposition and civil society organisations might force the elite to share the newly discovered oil wealth in Ghana, Uganda and Kenya, even though others in Nigeria and Angola have failed and paid dearly for it.
A more insidious danger is when opposition to the government is accused of being “unAfrican” and a lackey of the West – ask Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai – though one could argue that this is largely a phenomenon of the relatively newly independent states in Southern Africa.
Elsewhere in Africa, where people have been independent for more than half a century, access to economic opportunity is the main, overarching issue in people’s minds. Unfortunately, politics is still the only game in town and the president is still the richest man in the country.
Yet, when looking at Africa since the formation of the OAU, a near-impossible task in such a vast and diverse continent, one is bound to get excited about the huge opportunities, the aeroplane loads of men in suits flying to Lusaka or Dar es Salaam doing business and growing the middle class. Figures show the unprecedented population growth in Africa – in 2050 the working population here will be larger than in China or India – can be a huge benefit to countries with the correct structures in place.
But in some places the thin veneer of an elite – intellectual, political and economic – masks a deeply dysfunctional state in which things can easily fall apart. People in rural Senegal or Chad, or in the forests in Central Africa, are condemned to archaic practices and subsistence farming to make ends meet. The state is largely absent, but there are no service delivery protests there.
These are the places where Africa tests our faith in humanity. It is the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, still our heart of darkness, where women are gang-raped and children work in dangerous artisanal mines; it is the wars in the two Sudans; it is terror by the extremist Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria.
Will governments, the international community, the AU and regional organisations be able to stop dire conflicts with huge humanitarian costs, such as those in Somalia or the Sahel?
The dramatic coup in Mali on March 22 this year by soldiers who protested at not having the means to fight a rebellion in the north of the country was a reminder of this fragile state. The cruel consequence of the coup is that Mali is now divided in half. The United Nations estimates that a half-million people have fled their homes there. These are people who already have so little. For all former president Thabo Mbeki’s romanticism over Timbuktu and its scrolls, it is a poor place, surrounded by the vast desert.
But as the Free University of Amsterdam’s Stephen Ellis says in his optimistic work Before the Rain, despite the breakdown of the state people can still thrive through alternative structures. “Even when an efficient state bureaucracy is absent, power hierarchy and even institutions may still exist.”
The rapid modernisation of African cities, freeing up the electronic media and the wide availability of smartphones is already changing the face of a continent.
There is much to celebrate on Africa Day, but Africa’s success will probably be reached despite the rulers and not because of them.