New leadership…?

In a follow up to my previous post…benign neglect, with the G8 (group of 8 industrialized nations) summit coming up and Britain’s Tony Blair pushing for debt write-off and a doubling in aid to African countries, I feel the urge to caution these leaders about the way they go about this venture… not that they will ever hear what I got to say.

Writing off debt to free resources for human development in Africa is a humane gesture. However the act most be followed by stringent rules to see to it that these funds are in fact use to uplift the living standards of the people. The mindset in most European capitals that the bad old days in Africa, when leaders in military fatigues sent their wives to buy real estate, jewelry and give birth to make their offspring westerners are over, that the Mois, Mobutus and Bokassas are either dead or in retirement and that the present crop of African leaders are upright, forward-thinking leaders with the continent’s welfare at heart must be eradicated.

The notion that with the present generation of leaders in Africa, canceling odious debts made to the old, discredited African leaders of yore will be put into health, education and building roads without any mechanism for verification is just fantasy. The fantasy is based on the European thinking that things are changing on the continent of Africa with the new generation of leaders at the helm. To which I say bull. I have to suppress a laugh each time I hear this talk of a new generation of leaders from western talking heads. That’s not the Africa I lived in and sees on my visit, and if plans for an African recovery are built on such naiveté and wishful thinking, they are destined for failure.

How…one might venture to ask, did the elites in these western countries come to term turn leaves in Africa as born again, civic minded leaders with their citizens interest at heart? The answer is simple… elections or semblance of it. The fact that more African countries are run by nominally elected governments instead of military dictatorships is what the whole concept of “new leadership” is based on. This obscures the fact that the new administrations are structurally clones of those that went before them. The elites that have sabotaged development since independence have adapted to the times, learning to play the democracy game with panache. Africa’s kleptocracies have reinvented themselves.

Case in point the Gambia. When Doctor Jawara, 30 years in the saddle, was run out of the country in a military coup, western countries with their Bretton woods institutions voiced their dissent, called and paid for elections. Elections were held and guess what? The military dictator turn civilian was ‘democratically’ elected.

Like most people who love and care for Africa, I pin my hopes on the emergence of a breed of young, educated, technologically aware Africans who, less burdened by the rigid demands of tribal loyalty and free of the inferiority complexes of the colonial era, will stride confidently towards the future. But we are not there yet.

However, this doesn’t mean the west should give up on aid, abandon the campaign to write off debt, or stop trying to level the playing field when it comes to trade. The gist of my post is that the same old tedious rules shouldn’t apply this time around. Conditions on aid will have to be set and strictly policed. Donors will have to keep a sharp eye out for the more sophisticated scams that kleptocrats will come up with. In essence carry a big stick while offering the carrot.


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