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.

State-building is not a walk in the park

 “Mauritius’s state building success came on the backs of relentlessly exploited slaves and indentured labourers. Sugar planters compelled the government to ignore mistreatment on sugar estates, implement unreasonable fines and annual passport fees in the name of preventing ‘vagrancy,’ and harass those workers who tried to search for a better life in urban professions. Planters’ actions were expressly designed to subjugate and repress the politically powerless in order to maximise their economic power. Moreover, the fact that class divides coincided with racial difference meant that economic and political contention between elites and labourers on Mauritius became imbued with what was, at times, virulent racism. The worst of these endeavours were related to the planters’ quest to secure an adequate labour supply in the four decades after 1825. Later initiatives, such as railway construction and research and development programmes, were fairly benign. Together, these undertakings transformed the island’s economy and governmental capabilities. In Mauritius, then, one finds something of a developmental paradox: although the long- term consequences of state building have led to a regional ‘miracle’, the way in which the island’s elite and government laid the groundwork for it was normatively reprehensible.”

That is Ryan Saylor writing in the latest edition of Review of African Political Economy.

The paper mostly focuses on the success story that was Mauritian state (capacity) building. But this paragraph is a reminder to those who imagine a whiggish history for much of the developing world to go take a hard, honest look at history.

Throughout most of history, in order to have barons that successfully limited the power of the king or his equivalent (thus creating the roots of post-enlightenment democracy) you needed barons who could extract the life out of peasants. Wars that made states killed lots of young conscripts, confiscated private property and led to the demise of whole peoples’ ways of life (Not all French had French speaking ancestors, for instance). And speaking of the French, they went through lots of republics and dictatorships to become what they are today. Further afield, following its own civil war the institutions of government designed to protect human rights in the US had to look the other way until the 1960s in order to preserve its democracy. In the 20th century, decades of intolerant Kemalist ideological orthodoxy laid the foundation for the Islamic world’s most resilient democracy in Turkey.

Source Wikipedia. Darker shades indicate state failure.

Source Wikipedia. Darker shades indicate state failure in 2011.

Will Egypt, Rwanda, Kenya and the rest escape these patterns if they are ever to become Denmark, the supposed paragon of liberal democracy?

How does one go about state-building in a modern world with sacrosanct borders and a saner human rights regime?

Recent events in the DRC and CAR confirm the urgency with which we ought to address the question of state-building in the developing world in general, and in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular (see map).

Wars of conquest (which probably would have resulted in Rwanda, Angola and Uganda carving up the DRC) are no longer kosher. Add to that the demands of a tighter and saner human rights regime and you are left with little room to maneuver if you are trying to create an effective state (which occasionally may involve curtailment of political rights). Unless you can somehow insulate yourself from the so called stakeholders, including the International Bleeding Hearts Industrial Complex – like much of east Asia did through the 70s and 80s – you are left with a rather tricky situation of trying to forge a unified state with a million and one centrifugal forces with communal rights backed by threats of donor sanctions. The same system ensures that every rebel group that can cobble together a few guns gets to sit at the table (see Sudan, Mali, Burundi, DRC, CAR, Chad). The UN or some Nordic state pays the hotel bills. Western observers and their sponsoring organizations write reports. Some of them meticulously document human rights abuses by rebels and government troops alike.

Meanwhile censuses are never taken. Taxes are never collected. Little economic activity takes place. And millions of people continue to live just a little bit better than they would in some stateless state of nature.

The present international consensus appears to be one that believes in state-building through democracy and institutions. Lived reality for much of world history appears to contradict this consensus. In most cases democracy and the phantom great institutions appear to lag state-building.

The challenge for those of us interested in state-building is to think of ways to go about the effort in a manner that is sensitive to the present human rights regime and structure of the international system. The present urgency, occasioned by widespread human suffering in the less governed spaces of the globe, requires that all reasonable options (including some uncomfortable ones) be put on the table.

Why are African Presidents so Popular?

Gallup recently (April 25) released a new report showing approval ratings of African leaders. Many of them are inexplicably popular (a case of respondent preference falsification?). The polls were conducted in 2011.

Top of the list are the likes of Pierre Nkurunziza (Burundi) and Francois Bozize (CAF). Even the unapologetic, unreconstructed autocrats  Paul Biya (Cameroon) and Blaise Compraore (Burkina Faso) poll above 70%.

The whole report is here.

The least popular African leader is Eduardo dos Santos of Angola who polled at a dismal 16%. Angola is Sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest oil producer and China’s largest trade partner on the continent – China imports upwards of 43% of Angola’s oil. The likely denouement of the dos Santos succession is still unclear but one cannot rule out the possibility of turmoil when Angola gets to cross that bridge, especially in light of the fact that Angola’s appear to blame both dos Santos and the country’s leadership.

A Ugandan journalist and a politician respond to Kony 2012

Angelo Izama, Ugandan journalist (and a good friend of yours truly) has a thoughtful op-ed piece in the Times. He makes the case that:

Campaigns like “Kony 2012” aspire to frame the debate about these criminals and inspire action to stop them. Instead, they simply conscript our outrage to advance a specific political agenda — in this case, increased military action.

African leaders, after all, are adept at pursuing their own agendas by using the resources that foreign players inject and the narratives that they prefer — whether the post-9/11 war on terror or the anti-Kony crusade. And these campaigns succeed by abducting our anger and holding it hostage. Often they replace the fanaticism of evil men with our own arrogance, and, worse, ignorance. Moreover, they blind us by focusing on the agents of evil and not their principals.

At the same time over at FP Nobert Mao, politician from northern Uganda and former presidential candidate, has the following to say:

It’s clear that the aim of the video [Kony 2012] was never intellectual stimulation. I don’t think the founders of Invisible Children are the foremost analysts of the complicated political, historical and security dynamics in our troubled part of Africa. They certainly wouldn’t earn high marks in African Studies. But I will go to my grave convinced that they have the most beautiful trait on earth — compassion.

Such sentiments matter, even today.  There are those who say the war is over in Northern Uganda. I say the guns are silent but the war is not over. The sky is overcast with an explosive mix of dubious oil deals, land grabs, arms proliferation, neglected ex-combatants, and a volatile neighborhood full of regimes determined to fish in troubled waters. What we have is a tentative peace. Our region is pregnant with the seeds of conflict. The military action in the jungles of Congo may capture Kony, but we need to do more to plant the seeds of peace founded on democracy, equitable development, and justice. Like peace, war too has its mothers, fathers, midwives, babysitters, and patrons. Perhaps Kony 2012 will help sort out the actors. The video has certainly shaken the fence, making fence-sitting very uncomfortable, indeed.

The two may disagree on the usefulness of tactics such as those that made the now famous video, but they certainly agree on the need to acknowledge agency of local actors in all these problems that require outside intervention.

My two cents on this is that there is definitely room for Africans to shape the narrative and tactics of advocacy in Western capitals (or elsewhere). Emotionally charged  mobilization tactics, like Kony 2012, are definitely a distraction from the real issues. But they also present an opportunity for African actors to leverage international attention and support against their own leaders who refuse to deal with problems that affect their daily lives. I am glad that in the case of Kony 2012 Ugandans have stepped in to provide perspective on the narrative and, hopefully, influence the eventual response by the relevant policymakers in DC.

Bozize’s son is not into authoritarianism, seriously

As we navigated a roundabout at the edge of town he turned to me and asked, “Have you been following the news?” I hadn’t heard anything since the day before. “About Ivory Coast? Gbagbo held his own inauguration today! Mais ca, c’est vraiment trop!”

Bozize’s son then launched into a diatribe about the failings of African executives. He and his friend, in the back seat, agreed that Ouattara would have been the better choice. “Ouattara is open. He’s for the West. Gbagbo is too much of a nationalist. You see what I’m trying to say?” Then he shifted fully into lecture mode: “We Africans, we have a problem. We like power too much. There are people who, once they grab power, stay there for thirty years! Est-ce que c’est normal? Non! Do you think you could see such a thing in America, or in Europe? No way! The problem here is the nepotism and the corruption.”

…… the conversation had turned to President Biya in neighboring Cameroon, now in power for more than thirty years. “C’est pas normal,” the president’s son clucked, shaking his head.

Bozize is the son of the guy who runs this place.

For more on this and other stories from CAR read this blog (HT Rachel).

Emperor Bokassa’s madness immortalized at the UN Plaza in San Francisco

Emperor Bokassa (of the Central African Republic/”Empire”) ranks high among Africa’s worst dictators. For his coronation as emperor of the Central African Empire he spent half the national budget (with the assistance of the French, of course).

This afternoon I once more encountered his colossal error which remains immortalized at the UN Plaza in San Francisco.

central african republic president re-elected

Francois Bozize, dictator of the Central African Republic, has been re-elected with 66% of the vote. Capital FM reports that:

Government spokesman Fidele Ngouandjika declared: “It is a victory of democracy for someone who took power in a (2003) coup d’etat and who was legitimised by the ballot in 2005.”

More like Democracy 0 Bozize 10

More on this here.

elections and democracy in the central african republic

The Central African Republic is a country the size of Texas with a population of 4.8 million and GDP that is “significantly smaller than that of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.” Since independence from France, a string of autocrats (including the infamous Emperor Bokassa), have held power in Bangui without much care for the hinterlands. The current president, Francois Bozize, seized power in a 2003 coup. In response to domestic and international pressure, well orchestrated elections were held last Sunday.

Mr. Bozize’s “Work nothing but Work” (KNK) party is expected to win. In 2008 he signed a peace agreement with several rebel movements spread throughout the country that were opposed to his rule. Elections were part of the deal.

But of what use are elections in places like Central African Republic?

“William Easterly recently argued that “good governance” rhetoric notwithstanding, aid to dictators has remained steady since 1972. The rich countries no long have strategic interests at stake, but the “Gerund Defense” enables donors to keep the money flowing: with only a few exceptions, no matter how corrupt or autocratic a regime, it could be said to be “developing” or “democratizing” and hence on a progressive course necessitating assistance. But the dictators hold “farcical ‘elections’” and nothing changes. If we take Easterly’s warning seriously and start to question the progressivist aid ideology, what should we do about those places where elections occur, and aren’t exactly farcical, but meaningful democracy – in which citizens’ grievances and claims are taken seriously and responded to by their political leaders – remains elusive? The Central African Republic (CAR), whose citizens voted in first-round presidential and legislative elections Sunday, is one such place. In the end, the case of places like CAR might prove more insidious, because it calls into question the definitional link between elections and democracy.”

More on this here

bozize is bokassa incarnate

Francois Bozize is trying hard to rehabilitate the image of Central Africa Republic’s former dictator Emperor Bokassa. This is not the same as Chileans trying to rehabilitate Pinochet. It is a lot closer to Cambodians trying to rehabilitate Pol Pot. This latest development tells you a lot about what kind of president the Central Africans have in Francois Bozize.

bemba’s case begins at the icc

Jean-Pierre Bemba is the ICC’s highest profile defendant yet (The other big names from the Continent’s conflicts have been tried under the UN special tribunals for Rwanda and Sierra Leone). The former Vice President of the DRC is on trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape, murder and pillage, in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Typical of most African conflicts which are labeled “civil” but are in actual sense international wars,  the DRC’s civil war extended beyond its borders. Bemba’s militia – The Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) – was used by its backers in the Central African Republic to put down a rebellion in the south of CAR.

The ICC has many failings. But its deterrent effect is beginning to take hold. Justice is political, no illusions about that. However, the court’s activities provide a guarantee that in some cases, once in a while, the voice of the voiceless men, women and children who bear the brunt of the Continent’s conflicts will be heard.

The BBC has more on this.