Hey, Big spender

The minute you walked in the joint. I could see you were a man of distinction. A
real big spender . . .Hey big spender, spend a little time with me…Dorothy Fields

With his lowly army origins, taste for excess and contempt for democracy, Yahya Jammeh is in many ways a cliché of the African Big Man. This man has no shame at all. He came to New York with a plane load of per diem collecting cronies and end up spending $10,000 organizing a picnic in the big apple. Hey, big spender…Dorothy Fields classic adored by my wife comes to mind. Where did he get the foreign currency when the average Gambian is destitute you might ask? And why on this particular group of people who are well off compared to the living standards prevailing in their homeland.

But that is African elitism for you. From east to west, the pattern is drearily repetitive. Keep just enough at home to rig the next election, pay off the army, build a garish palace (complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool), buy yourself an old soviet made plane, then stack the rest in offshore bank accounts in your relatives name and occasionally throw chump change at citizens in the diaspora who can’t compete in the merit based societies of their host countries. Whatever you do, get the money out of the country and never bring it back. Yahya learnt the trade from the old masters…the Sani Abachas of western Africa, who allocated millions of barrels of his nation’s crude to yahya no questions asked. Don’t tell me he wasn’t aware that proceeds from the sale of crude meant for the Gambia ended up in Yahya’s big ‘Waramba’ pockets.

It is no wonder why Asia, with comparable economic indicators in the 1950s surpass Africa in economic growth rates. It is caused by a group of Africans headed by the Yahya Jammehs that relentlessly cannibalizes the system, consuming and stealing from the very industries, agricultural sectors or aid flows on which its prosperity should be based.

But should we be all doom and gloom about the future of Africa? Not if you subscribe to the view of anti- corruption campaigners, who pin their hopes on the emergence of a savvy new generation of urban Africans-whose members attended American and European colleges. These young men and women, the thinking goes, will not look to the government for future employment, are less likely to be swayed by tribal loyalties and are less ready than their forefathers to attribute automatic value to western symbols of prestige, whether a Swiss bank account or a home in Atlanta…most of them already had one.

“The phenomenon of capital flight is essentially born out of an inferiority complex,” says a Kenyan business journalist. “For that inferiority complex to disappear, you need at least one generation of stability and market-based success. It is destined to fade as society changes, and the agent for change will be the emerging urban middle class.”

Until that generation seizes the reins of power, (we are looking at October of 2006 in the case of Gambia if the NADD experiment bears fruit); any development programme that fails to tackle what the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has described as “a bigger threat to Africa’s development than Aids” risks being doomed from the outset because the Yahya Jammehs will continue to raid the cookie jar while the rest of their country men starve.


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