Thoughts from Sierra Leone

“Many Westerners I met in West Africa took it as an article of faith that all of the region’s woes were the result of outside malfeasance – someone else’s fault, going back to colonialism and the slave trade. After two years in Freetown I not only cannot agree, but I think such views – promulgating as they do an abdication of responsibility – are bad for Africa. The Western world undoubtedly committed atrocities to the continent. But today it is up to Africans to carve out a brighter future for themselves.”

That is Simon Akam in a piece reviewing his time in Sierra Leone that has sort of gone viral.

It is the kind of thinking that I wish informed all of the West’s engagement with Africa. Most of Africa’s problems are African. Period.

Africa does not need Oxfam to tell the world to forget about its wars and famines and instead focus on its natural beauty or whatever else that is more positive. It is not the responsibility of Oxfam to feed Africans but that of the kleptocratic African ruling elite. The Oxfams of this world only serve to let Africa’s Mobutus off the hook.

When an African head of state appoints his son as defense minister and then cannot beat back a ragtag rebel alliance armed with AKs on jeeps we should not send troops to help him. He should be left to stew in his own soup.

For far too long the predominantly humanitarian approach in dealing with Africa has allowed the absolute triumph of absolute mediocrity in much of the continent. This must change if Africa is to consolidate the political and economic gains made over the last two decades.

Governing on the cheap in Africa

What is striking and surprising here is just how easy it can be to take over some African states, or large parts of them.  The post-independence historical record provides numerous examples where dozens or a few hundred armed men have done it.  This is generally just assumed to be the way things are in Africa, but when you think about it it is actually really puzzling.  Being the president in African countries (and many others besides) can be an incredibly lucrative deal.  Why don’t these rulers, in their own self-interest, take some of that money and use it to build crack units, presidential guards, or strong and loyal army divisions that would protect their hold on power against two dozen putchists, or a hundred or a couple thousand rebels armed with rifles and maybe some mortars?

I don’t think we have really good explanations for this in the relevant Pol Sci literatures.  Maybe the most promising hypothesis is that African presidents are so afraid of coups and attacks from inside their regime that they don’t want to support the construction of any organization that would be competent at using force.  Keeping the military weak  may lower their coup risk somewhat, but effectively trades coup risk off against higher risks of rural rebellion, insurgency, and foreign depredations such as we are seeing in Eastern Congo.

That is Jim Fearon writing over at Monkey Cage. More on this here.

Jim’s concern extends beyond security matters. Much of Africa remains under-governed in other regards as well – tax collection, garbage collection, provision of public goods like water and sanitation, roads, etc etc.

One key driver of this phenomenon, I believe, is the manner in which sectional elites (and those that they purportedly represent) are incorporated into the national system.

You see, many African national governments tend to have a president surrounded by a coalition of ethnic/sectional elites representing specific geographic regions or communities. This sort of incorporation of elites and the regions/social groups that they represent allows African central governments to govern on the cheap since as long as ethnic chief from region X can bring his people and sort of make them feel represented in the centre then the government has no reason to establish a strong presence in the chief’s homeland region (unless that region is economically viable).

A keen observer may ask why co-ethnics of these “ethnic chiefs” never demand for more from their supposed representatives at the centre.

The answer lies in the nature of citizenship in most of Africa. In many countries citizenship (and the associated claims on the state) tends to be mediated through one’s ethnic group. Talk of “our people” is common across much of the region. Even educated people have internalized the fact that you can only get jobs if a co-ethnic is in a high position in government. Everyone therefore invests in having a powerful ethnic representative at the centre that can effectively bargain with whoever is president (or in the core of the governing coalition) to get enough jobs for the boys and girls from back home.

But having such a person obviates the need for the central government to establish its presence at the local level since it is much cheaper to give the ethnic chief his own fiefdom in the name of a cabinet ministry. Barriers to entry allow for very long tenures for these ethnic chiefs thus breeding incompetence of the worst possible kind – like the case of Kenyan police officers accepting bribes from al-Shabab operatives to allow for passage of explosives destined for Nairobi.

From the president’s/government’s perspective, all you have to do to prevent an all out rebellion is be on good terms with enough of these ethnic chiefs or make it beneficial for them to live under your rule.

Seen this way, under-government is not just for the sake of coup-proofing but also an unintended consequence of the manner in which the masses and their representative elites are incorporated into the national government/state.

The best book out there that I have read on this subject is Catherine Boone’s Political Topographies of the African State. Boone is best read with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa, although Herbst’s conclusions are too deterministic for my liking.

The dangers of simplistic single narratives

As Stearns argues in this excellent book, the causes of the conflicts in eastern DRC are multiple and complex. Yet simple narratives in the media and among aid workers and advocacy groups have tried hard to reduce these causes to a fight over minerals; and similarly the consequences as mass rape of women and young girls (remember the video cameras fiasco??). In reality the story is more complex than this.

Here is a quote from a good paper on the international community’s responses to the Congo (DRC) conflicts by Severine Autesserre in the latest edition of African Affairs:

“These narratives focus on a primary cause of violence, illegal exploitation of mineral resources; a main consequence, sexual abuse of women and girls; and a central solution, extending state authority. I elucidate why simple narratives are necessary for policy makers, journalists, advocacy groups, and practitioners on the ground, especially those involved in the Congo. I then consider each narrative in turn and explain how they achieved prominence: they provided straightforward explanations for the violence, suggested feasible solutions to it, and resonated with foreign audiences. I demonstrate that the focus on these narratives and on the solutions they recommended has led to results that clash with their intended purposes, notably an increase in human rights violations.

The international actors’ concentration on trafficking of mineral resources as a source of violence has led them to overlook the myriad other causes, such as land conflict, poverty, corruption, local political and social antagonisms, and hostile relationships between state officials, including security forces, and the general population. Interveners have singled out for support one category of victims, sexually injured women and girls, at the expense of others, notably those tortured in a non-sexual manner, child soldiers, and the families of those killed.”

The paper is a grim reminder that “fixing the Congo”  – whatever that means – will take a long time. More on this here.

No ICC hearings in Kenya

The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova on Wednesday decided that the trial of suspects of the 2007-08 election violence in Kenya will not be held in the country.

Great move.

I am of the view that holding the hearings in Kenya would have created an unnecessary distraction from the important task of implementing Kenya’s new constitution. Already, the bigwigs accused of masterminding the violence that killed 1300 and displaced over 300,000 Kenyans have ethnicized their predicament. Holding the hearings in Kenya would have handed them an opportunity for a circus of ethnicity-charged rallies and demonstrations in Nairobi.

The ICC continues to be a source of debate in Kenya and across Africa. Many have faulted the court’s apparent bias against African leaders. Some have even called it a form of neocolonialism. While admitting that the court could use a little bit more tact [principally by acknowledging that it cannot be apolitical BECAUSE it is an international court SANS a world government] I still think that it is the best hope of ending impunity on the African continent – at least until African leaders internalize the fact that it is not cool to kill your own people.

Among the cases that should have been handled with a sensitivity to political realities include Sudan and Libya [and may be the LRA in Uganda]. Kenya’s Ocampo Six, the DRC’s Jean-Pierre Bemba and Cote d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, on the other hand, should not raise questions of national sovereignty. Murderous dictators and their henchmen do not have internal affairs. In any case sovereignty for many an African country means nothing more than sovereignty for the president and his cronies.

Related posts here and here.

Graphical Illustration of China’s global reach

NPR has this cool graphic on China’s global investments [click on image to enlarge].

Notice that Nigeria is among the top destinations of Chinese investments.

In my alternate universe Abuja (the undisputed regional hegemon) is stable and uses this, and the fact that it is also among the most important sources of US-bound crude oil, as leverage to nudge the two biggest global powers in the direction of a more stable and coherent Africa policy.

More on this here.

everyone is under the law

It is kind of nice to be reminded that in a democracy nobody should be above the law. The pictures of sitting members of parliament, one of them an assistant minister, arraigned in court on charges of incitement are definitely refreshing.

In other news, a reminder that parts of the Continent still have the sort of CRAZINESS that ought to drive even the most mild tempered of us mad. And of course it is hard to talk about civil conflict without mentioning the land of Mobutu.

if a tenth the charities out to help “africa” were any good ….

A lot of money has been poured in Africa (to use a Kenyan phrase) since the 1960s. Most of it has gone down the drain without much impact. If a tenth of the aid effort in Africa were effective things would be very different. Instead you have a cacophony of aid effort without much coordination. Yes there are the many hospitals, schools and business projects that have improved millions of livelihoods, and we applaud them. But there are also bizarre projects – like giving rape victims cameras to record their ordeals in the Congo or this crazy idea to send a million shirts to Africa.  As Aid Watch aptly puts it, a lot of aid is never about what the people in this mythical place called Africa need but what people want to give – and oftentimes what they want to give is a function of their warped notion of what life is like on the Continent.

And in other news, Sierra Leone has seen the light. As I noted here two years ago, the country’s HDI indicators belong in a time long gone. It is therefore encouraging that the Sierra Leoneans have decided to take HDI matters seriously.

africa’s population – the economist’s view

The Economist has two interesting pieces on the demographic trends in Africa. The first article notes that the fertility rates on the continent are finally beginning to come down. The second one discusses the chances that Africa will take advantage of the democratic dividend and execute its own green revolution.

As I have argued before, there is a great deal of economic sense in bringing population growth on the Continent under control – at least until people’s life options have been increased enough so that they can make well informed choices on the number of offspring to have. The usual critics of family planning measures – the Church and conspiracy theorists – should take some time to visit slums or rural homes in which overburdened, dis-empowered daughters of the Continent with little or no economic wherewithal run

peace finally coming to the drc

Negotiators from the government and rebel movements in Eastern DRC have indicated that a deal could be made soon to end a war that has led to the loss of thousands of lives and displacement of more than 450, 000. General Nkunda, the leader of the main rebel movement in the East of this vast central African nation seems to have finally gave up his war of rebellion against Kinshasa which he claims is aimed at defending his Tutsi people from Hutu rebels from Rwanda.

The European Union and the United States have pledged to ensure that the deal goes through unhindered and have also promised to provide up to 150 million dollars to help in the reconstruction effort. Most of the regions infrastructure has been destroyed by years of conflict going back to the mid 90s during the Kabila rebellion.

This is welcome news coming from a region that has in recent past seen the flaring of tensions in Kenya, the former oasis of peace and stability. Stability in the DRC is vital for the entire region as this single nation has about 60 million people – a size-able market for the other countries’ struggling economies.

It is my hope that the peace agreement is comprehensive enough to settle the dispute once and for all so that Congolese can  for once concentrate on the project of economic development and modernisation.

the drc and its war of attrition

Last week the government of the Democratic Rep. of Congo (DRC) belatedly announced that it had captured Mushake, a rebel held town in the Eastern fringes of Africa’s second largest country. This was seen by many as a sign of government commitment to winning the war (now that the rebels seem not to care about negotiations) and finally restoring peace to the region. It therefore came as a surprise when it emerged that the government had lost the town again to the rebels.

The DRC is a country that has never known peace; going back to the days when it was personal property of King Leopold of Belgium. Even after independence, the secessionist attempts by Katanga (South Eastern region), the assassination of Lumumba and Mobutu’s kleptocratic and murderous rule did not make things better. When Mobutu died there was hope that the elder Kabila would bring peace and a sense of nationhood. But this was not to be; Kabila was assassinated by his own men and succeeded by his son. The younger Kabila has tried to make peace, first with the Bemba led opposition and then with the Eastern rebels, but without much success.

The recent loss of Mushake is a sign of government ineptitude in fighting this war. It is clear that the rebels and their sponsors in Rwanda and Uganda do not want peace and will do anything to keep the embers burning because this way they will have unregulated, tax free access to the minerals in the Eastern region. The Kinshasa government cannot afford a war of attrition with the rebels as this will distract it from its main objectives of providing public goods for all its citizens, not to mention the long term effects such a war will have. The sooner Kabila gets his act together and wins this war, the better it is going to be not only for the Congolese but also for the entire great lakes region.

The African Union and other regional bodies should support the government in making sure that the rebels are defeated and punished for their criminal adventures. Although the Kinshasa government is not the best government the DRC could ever have, secessionist wars are not the best way to deal with this problem. The rebels should know that in this day and age there are better ways of expressing one’s grievances; ways that do not contribute to unwarranted human suffering and wastage of scarce resources.