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.

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What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

cult of personality

Coronation of Emperor Bokassa I

Most African dictators, past and present, shot to preeminence through reality-bending personality cults. Kenya’s Moi was “teacher, farmer, and everything number 1.” Bokassa became “Emperor of Central Africa” (see picture). Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia “cures AIDS” on Thursdays and plans to soon crown himself “King of the Gambia.” Francisco Macias Nguema, first president of Equatorial Guinea and card-carrying crackpot dictator, named himself the “Implacable Apostle of Freedom” and “The Sole Miracle of Equatorial Guinea.”

I remember as a child drinking “Nyayo” school milk, pledging allegiance to the president and “the Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity” and seeing the president at the beginning of every newscast. On most Sundays the KBC newscaster would announce that the president went to church at the African Inland Church in Milimani, Nairobi.

Abandoned footnotes tries to elaborate on the logic of personality cults.

To be sure, in order for a cult of personality to work, you must start small, and you must be willing to both reward (those who denounce) and punish (those who do not praise) with sufficient predictability, which presents a problem if control is initially lacking; there must be a group committed to enforcement at the beginning, and capable of slowly increasing the threshold “signal” of support required of citizens. (So some dictators fail at this: consider, e.g., Mobutu’s failures in this respect, partly from inability to monitor what was being said about him or to punish deviations with any certainty). But once the cult of personality is in full swing, it practically runs itself, turning every person into a sycophant and basically destroying everyone’s dignity in the process. It creates an equilibrium of lies that can be hard to disrupt unless people get a credible  signal that others basically hate the dictator as much as they do and are willing to do something about that.
The post concludes…
The only bright spot in all this is that dictators can become unmoored from reality – they come to believe their own propaganda – in which case they can be surprised by eruptions of protest (e.g., Ceausescu).

chadian rebels finally routed

Chad, like most of central Africa, is a sad story. After days of fighting, reports indicate that the government of Idriss Deby – possibly with some help from the French – has managed to to repel rebels from the capital and gain “total control.” The question is, for how long? This was the second time in a few years that the rebels had marched into the capital and threatened to topple Deby. This was also a confirmation that the government of Chad remains weak and unable to provide security, let alone development programmes, for its own people.

The story of Chad is a story that is repeated many times on the continent of Africa. You always have very weak governments that are unable to provide the most basic of public goods to their people but that are propped up by the West- the French being the number one culprits here. The French were friends with Bokassa and Mobutu, among other francophone-African dictators who brought much suffering to their own people while maintaining strong ties to Paris and having frequent state visits to the Elysee. The opposition to these weak governments is also just as weak. The many rebels movements fighting silly wars of greed devoid of any ideological significance are too weak to win. Instead they put their countrymen through wars of attrition that keep them forever stagnant in pre-modern subsistence existence. The same applies for Political opposition parties. Think of Zimbabwe. Everyone wants Mugabe out, except Tsvangirai and Mutambara – the two men who have refused to join forces within the MDC in order to unseat Bob.

More than two decades after Achebe wrote about it in Nigeria, the trouble with Africa still remains simply and squarely a problem of leadership. There is nothing inherently wrong with Africa or the African people. The only strange thing about Africa is its ability to keep churning out more Mobutus, Bokassas and Amins and very few Mandelas.

Going back to Chad…… may be it is a good thing that Deby is still president. However, deep down I think that that Africans should think hard about their many weak and unviable states. The DRC, Somalia and many states in the Sahel some to mind. If these countries cannot get their act together they should be left to the mercy of “evolution of states” so that in the end we can have states that are viable and able to provide for their people and not kleptocracies that only benefit their leaders’ kinsmen and a few multinational corporations.