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 Durban Dreaming
Max Yasgur owner of the Woodstock site & a young Martin Scorsese returns the Peace Sign

Durban Dreaming - This collage has nothing to do with the Mail & Guardian or Shyaka Kanuma's illuminating essay on the recent death of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) & the premature, if untimely caesarean birth of the African Union (AU). Besides the extremely progressive AU logo - which, on its side, looks for all the world like an advert for a porno movie or Gold Record Rap album - Moammar Gadaffi has nobody but himself to blame for setting himself up as a joke; with respect to many people who see Moammar, like Bob Mugabe, as a hero. Maybe it would be funny if people weren't starving & farmers weren't being thrown off the land by a man (?) who should know that Hitler copied Charlie Chaplin's mustache - not the other way around. To most people these dictators are clearly villains; and if ordinary people (who, like us musicians?) allow this circus to get away without a song, comment or critique, the rest of the world - as insane as it all is - would think that we (here in Africa) were madder than them. This political farce has been thrust on us at great expense - Gadaffi shipped 2 plane-loads of limousines & guns into South Africa with a bunch of WOW bodyguards & an arrogant confrontational staff force of hundreds; & then proceeded to drag his expensive road show through the poorest parts of Africa. Is this obscene or what? If the Unions are unhappy about the wage disparities between the workers of the revolution & the new political elite who employ them, then what must the people who have no work in those countries think of the likes of Gadaffi & Mugabe? You can't stop the revolution - the wheels go 'round - the heads on top while get a turn to get their feet on the ground.

Dreaming in Durban by Shyaka Kanuma Mail & Guardian 12th July 2002

However strenuous our leaders' efforts to steer our continent out of its morass of underdevelopment, poverty, disease and civil strife, their strategy is based on such shaky assumptions that they are likely to achieve little progress.

Put politely, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) -- to which Presidents Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Abdoulaye Wade and others have put their names -- is nothing other than an earnest appeal to the West's conscience for help. It is an attempt to cut a deal with an uninterested G8 that knows very well that the Africans haven't even the splinter of a bargaining chip on the table. No matter what illusions we Africans might entertain, Nepad can become functional only at the whim of the rich nations.

What is perhaps more surprising is that, even as they implore the rich to bankroll their plans, Mbeki and Co do not stop to consider the harm their continued association with the likes of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe does to their cause. That is, what harm this relationship does to the image they want to cultivate of themselves as an African leadership imbued with fresh thinking. To put it simply: why would anyone bail out the relatives of a man (Mugabe) who is busy clobbering their own relatives (Zimbabwean whites)? And, let us not forget, this time there is no Soviet Union to turn to if the West ignores our overtures for help.

According to many analysts, the African Union (AU), of which Nepad is to be the lodestar, also does not appear to be the product of hard-nosed thinking, or of an assessment of what can and cannot be achieved. At worst, they see it as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) by another name. Like its predecessor, the AU operations will be seriously hobbled by African governments' lack of institutional, organisational and financial capacity.

But these problems -- serious though they are -- are not the most significant.

The major obstacles to the African quest for development, modernity and the betterment of African lives are the socio-economic and political complexities the continent has to navigate before it even arrives at the start line.

This is not to pour cold water on the genuine efforts to map a way towards a better future for us. This article is merely the contribution to the debate by one African citizen -- one member of a citizenry whose interests usually, curiously, slip below the radar in the rarefied atmosphere of presidential discussions to hatch big plans.

An appraisal of the continent's post-colonial history provides grounds for serious doubts about the efficacy of the latest efforts to find solutions to African problems.

Tanzania's first president, the late Julius Nyerere, noted in the 1980s: "While the rest of the world has become urbanised, Africa is going back to the [traditional] village." Perhaps Nyerere, a thinker who for all his faults had never been known for a lack of candour, was acknowledging what a shambolic failure his Ujamaa (collective villagisation) had turned out to be. But at least Nyerere, unlike most of his less savoury contemporary rulers, had the good grace to acknowledge criticism and to step down after this failure and to let others have a crack at running Tanzania.

Ujamaa did not, and could not, work; a similar project by the Ethiopian autocrat Haile Mengistu Mariam failed; and so did left-leaning strategies by so-called African socialist heads of state such as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Uganda's Milton Obote, Guinea's Sekou Toure and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda to nationalise their countries' industries and enterprises. The reasons Africa's flirtations with socialist- or communist-inspired ideologies failed were not solely those that led to the failure of these approaches elsewhere.

Communism, socialism, Marxism and state-controlled African economies generally failed for much the same reasons that democracy on the Western model, capitalism and the free market, failed on African soil: these approaches were not rooted in any African thinking. They were at odds with realities on the ground, having been imported wholesale from outsiders. It did not matter whether they were transposed forcibly or voluntarily.

As for those African states that began as parliamentary democracies but ended up failing, a number of historians have argued plausibly that the democratic political framework was an artificial construct. That construct was hastily put in place by the departing colonial powers and readily embraced by the nationalists as the price they had to pay to be entrusted with control over newly independent states.

These impositions, alongside the economic non-viability of most of the new African states, and the woeful inadequacy of skilled labour to get both the public and private sectors running properly, meant Africa already was in big trouble barely a decade into independence.

The oil crisis of the Seventies, and the steep decline in the prices of the commodities that were (and still are) Africa's principal export -- coffee, cocoa, tea and so on -- precipitated Africa's reversion to the form of government it was evolving before contact with outsiders a century or more earlier. That is the practice of patronage, whereby politics was organised around the establishment of patron/client networks fed by resources from the state (whatever form it took).

At a different time and in other circumstances Africans might well have evolved more suitable systems of governance out of patronage. However, by the late 20th century, others had already imposed their order of things on the world -- an order that tolerated little that was different. And the African politics of patronage was not among the favoured departures from the norm. For the main raison d'etre of patronage was to display wealth ostentatiously, while the patron sought simultaneously to satisfy voracious client networks whose compliance was required for him to retain power. The patron was not seeking to create an environment in which wealth could be accumulated in order to invest productively. This being so, Africa's politics of patronage produced catastrophic results in the late 20th century.

For starters, the army, the police, the judiciary and other such political artifacts introduced by the colonial masters soon found a new use. They became the instruments by which the patron or the chief (who was now glorified by new titles such as president, prime minister or commander-in-chief) could appropriate more of the state's resources to himself, his immediate family, loyal retainers and so on.

In time national resources that had once been sufficient to keep a critical mass of the population contented dwindled. In these new circumstances the army was called on not to take on a foreign enemy but to mount violent reprisals against citizens clamouring for more jobs, more freedom of speech and more rights in other areas of life. Madmen like Uganda's Idi Amin and the Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa went berserk, massacring their civilian populations.

Others, such as Mobutu Sese Seko and his network turned theft by government into an art form for which we now have a name: kleptocracy. Zaire, which after the ouster of Mobutu was in the late 1990s renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo by his nemesis, Laurent Kabila, had scarcely seen the end of one rebel war when it was convulsed by another, more serious one. That war pitted Kabila and his Zimbabwean, Angolan and other allies against his erstwhile Rwandan and Ugandan allies. And all this not long after the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide.

Soon Congo, a battleground of no less than six or seven foreign armies, became another example of a terminal, failing state -- following Somalia into that category. Sierra Leone, too, was following a similar trajectory, as were Liberia, Congo (Brazzaville) and Burundi.

Angola, potentially one of the richest countries on the continent, is today a mere shell of a country. Ruled by a government engorged on the proceeds of the oil industry and devastated by a civil war in which rebels have fed off the wholesale plunder of the country's diamond wealth, it is now a country in ruin. Though ravaged by the civil war that was aided and abetted by foreign governments, Angola is principally the victim of the folly and greed of its politicians.

Africa's politics of patronage rendered the modern state quite unviable and unleashed the worst of excesses. Now political thinkers are deeply puzzled about what to make of Africa. And some senior African leaders have been prompted to go on a floundering search for solutions. One result is Nepad. Another is the new AU. And so on.

Which brings us to the question, or rather the dilemma: how can rulers who are themselves clearly the problem be part of the solution? I am talking of those in the mould of Mobutu: dinosaurs like Mugabe, Kenya's Daniel arap Moi, former OAU chief and ruler of Togo Gnassingbe Eyadema, Sam Nujoma of Namibia and Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola; criminals like Liberia's Charles Taylor; buffoons like Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia and Bikile Muluzi of Malawi; and obstructive showmen like Moammar Gadaffi of Libya. And, lest I provide undeserved comfort to some who declare themselves progressive new rulers, I include Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Eritrea's Isaias Afwerki, who have managed to transform themselves into out-and-out autocrats with remarkable speed.

These men are not troubled by niceties such as respect for human rights, concern for their populations' material welfare or consensual decision-making. Most preside over decaying military or police states. They benefit from a hybrid of African patronage and farcical parliamentary, judicial and other institutional procedures that contrive invariably to act in the big man's interests.

This is the kind of rule that the political scientist Patrick Chabal, a specialist on lusophone Africa, calls "the political instrumentalisation of disorder".

It beggars belief that a gathering (such as that in Durban) of men who benefit from disorder will help unravel that disorder; that they will pave the way for good government in their countries; that they will give up their cash cows, surrender power and, with it, their means to a livelihood.

What is more baffling is how the initiators of Nepad, their noble intentions aside, can delude themselves into thinking that anyone in the West will give Africa the necessary funds for their plans, when arch-enemies of that same West (if not also of their own people), such as Mugabe and Gadaffi, are likely to benefit from any such assistance.

Mbeki and the others may be right in insisting that no one should presume to dictate to Africa how to run its affairs, or to tell it what company it may keep. But, by the same reasoning, Africa cannot presume to dictate who should give it money, how much and on what terms. Nor can Africa do so. Africa accounts for barely 1% of world economic output and world trade. Dreaming in Durban is all very well, but a dose of realism might go further.

Good sense would dictate that a majority of African leaders dissociate themselves with immediate effect from Mugabe and Gadaffi to signal commitment to their stated positions. Otherwise the AU risks being seen as its predecessor, the OAU, was. Memorably, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, before he, too, became corrupt, called it a trade union of criminals.

On the assumption that the African leaders can get the West to play ball and pour the necessary money and investment into the continent, what then? Would the continent not still look like a bottomless pit with an insatiable hunger for money? At least from the point of view of anyone looking for a return on their investments?

Consider the appallingly inadequate capacity of most African people who, as a result of the years of misrule, mismanagement and the continent's many historical misfortunes, have never reached their full potential. Would they be able to translate incoming investments into tangible benefits for themselves and their families? And what of those Africans currently employed in jobs in the formal sector? How hard do they work? From my observation in the more thanseven African countries I have been to, or lived in, not hard at all.

My judgment is, of course, a generalisation. But it seems a widely accepted rule in much of Africa that one has to be late for appointments; that one does not work half as fast as one is capable of doing; that attending a funeral for a week, and at very short notice, is acceptable; that those supposed to answer a telephone need not be at their desks or within earshot do so in a disrespectful and careless manner; that chronic power failures are standard; and that incessant tampering with mail is the rule.

Who is to reverse poor labour discipline? Who is to teach efficiency? When salaries are poor, training is almost non-existent, and there is little motivation to work properly, honestly and hard?

These are awesome obstacles to the success of the AU and Nepad.

But consider also that African leaders have premised their case on liberalising their countries' markets further to demonstrate their commitment to Western-style economics. First, these leaders suppose that economic or political liberalisation can be instituted from above. Second, they believe this approach will foster African development. This thinking is far off the mark -- though, to be fair, the Western backers of their plans will countenance no other approach.

It is, of course, wonderful to imagine most African states turning themselves into functioning democracies, following the International Monetary Fund economic blueprints on offer, and developing as a result. But the history of how that liberalisation has worked itself out in other places suggests the outcome in Africa will be otherwise.

If it is true that capitalism was the economic engine of early Western development, the countries that have developed since World War II have done so through state -- rather than laissez-faire -- capitalism. Examples of this latter process are Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea -- all countries where state-led economic development preceded democratisation. Both in the West and these East-Asian examples, democracy has usually been achieved only through a hard-fought battle. This has often been a struggle in which the wealthier citizens of the economically successful countries imposed a form of political accountability that has evolved historically into what we now call democracy in the West.

These patterns of development towards democracy suggest Africa faces a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. Nothing has changed dramatically on the social, political and economic landscape of black Africa since independence to suggest that the prescriptions now being put forward by the West, the International Monetary Fund, Nepad and the AU will work.

There are no easy ways out of the vicious circle in which Africa finds itself. Nor are there any quick-fix or short-term solutions. In imagining there are, the gathering in Durban is mistaken. What Africa needs is focused leadership willing to make the necessary, hard decisions without any hope of seeing or achieving results in the short term.

When Africa's leaders suggest they should not tolerate bad rule, they should walk the walk. They should stop openly hobnobbing with (at least) the worst tyrants among themselves. As the Chinese say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Africa's populations, still largely incapacitated by ignorance, poverty and tribalism, are unable to effect the necessary changes. What they need from the continent's leadership is an unwavering commitment to their welfare: fewer weapons purchass; more money spent on schools, hospitals and adult education; and the development of an ethos of good governance.

This commitment by African leaders should go hand-in-hand with a readiness to surrender power when fresh thinking and new ideas are needed. Africa's brightest and best -- those brains that have drained off to the Diaspora -- need to be enticed back.

We can only hope that Mbeki, Obasanjo, Wade and other African leaders do, indeed, lead by example, isolating the worst apples within their ranks, patiently instilling among their compatriots the virtues of putting people first, working diligently on trade issues to form regional blocs that can speak with one voice to the rest of the world.

Ferrying dictators to Durban to mouth platitudes will not help. We have seen all the good it did in 1963 when they were ferried to Addis Ababa to form the OAU.

Shyaka Kanuma is a member of this year's class of Nieman Fellows at Harvard University

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