I recently read a book called the “State of Africa” by Martin Meredith, which I can inform you is an exercise in masochism, in it is the well-known catalogue of African dictators and their despicable crimes.
I read for the umpteenth time that Bokassa was a cannibal, Mobutu stole a huge amount of money, Idi Amin was illiterate, apartheid was wrong and all the other truisms we all know.
I wondered what his publishing editor thought in that (eureka!) moment when he realised that he needed another book on Africa; “I know what we need, we need another book detailing how messed up Africa is, call that Meredith quick!!”
At the end of it all I wondered to myself “is there something genetic in Africans that makes us inherently stupid?” Out of nearly 50 African nations why are they nearly all in a mess?
There are a few exceptions; the Arabs with their oil are doing ok-‘ish’, the Islands such as Mauritius, Seychelles and Cape Verde top the Ibrahim index but on the mainland there is little to be proud of since independence.
But to say that is to dismiss the massive gains Africans have made in 50 years since independence. When one looks at our history we faced two big problems; colonialism and de-colonisation.
Colonialism was bad enough but the way we were decolonised did more damage than the actual period of colonialism.
It is a contradiction that a knife causes more damage if it is pulled out than left in; in first aid if a victim is stabbed you are advised to leave the knife in until the doctor extracts it, otherwise the victim will bleed to death.
Our colonisers never expected to relinquish their power so soon; they were forced to do so by the Americans when they won WWII.
Belgium had a 50-year plan to hand over independence to Congo and Rwanda-Urundi and the fact that they botched their exit has affected us ever since.
I was amazed in Kenya by the politics of patronage and corruption on display during the 2007 election; at one rally in Kilome I witnessed a candidate arrive at a rival’s rally in a helicopter and he threw thousands of in cash out the window causing a stampede.
I was given 50/- for every rally I attended, a derisory sum but standard practice in Kenya.
In Uganda there was something even more absurd; a president accused of nepotism duly sacks his brother but appoints his wife to a cabinet that already contains several relatives.
A friend in Kampala called me and said it was the final insult “These Bahima are eating too much, we Baganda are the majority, it is our turn to eat, we should get at least 30% according to our share.”
The biggest myth about Africa is that we do not understand political issues and can only vote in tribal blocs. I tested this myth once during the parliamentary elections last year; I asked my houseboy who he was supporting and his answer was firm.
“I don’t bother with politics, it only leads to trouble, I just work and make my money.”
Then I asked him “Do you think the rich should pay higher taxes to help the poor; or do you think the rich should be given tax cuts to stimulate the economy?” and he was quite nuanced “There has to be a balance; the rich must pay their share but so should the poor. You can’t overtax the rich because they generate revenue and that would have negative results.”
I must remind you that he had little education to speak of; I asked about government’s spending and he said “it has to stay at manageable levels; we can be tempted to solve all our problems at once and over-extend our resources.”
I asked about social issues “This country is really going down morally, girls are just too loose, men are drinking too much, as a teetotaller I think we should raise duty on beer as it destroying our nation.”
Since then I saw him in a different light; despite his relatively low status he had a good understanding of the issues as an observant and concerned citizen.
In America he’d be a Republican or a Tory in UK, UPM in France and because he had aspirations and not fears. I realised that a new type of politics is possible, one based on issues and not personality cults or tribal blocs.
Politicians in our past have appealed to our baser instincts, to our greed and to our hatreds. No nation knows the harm that this type of politics can do like Rwanda where humankind reached its lowest point of immorality in the Genocide.
When one talks to African leaders there is little talk of policy and more of personality; I want to be able to ask WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? And get a reply in terms of policy like “I believe in lower interest rates, lower taxes, lower government spending.”
Or even the opposite but we Africans desperately need something to believe in; not slogans, not demagogues, not tribal blocs but a consensus based on issues.
These issues cut across all social strata and demographics otherwise we will have to endure more books by the likes of Martin Meredith telling us how stupid we are, and retelling the fact the Emperor Bokassa was an animal and Mobutu a kleptomaniac.