What the uproar about her visit to a shrine tells us about the crisis of post-colonial Africa
Rebecca Kadaga caused uproar when she visited a traditional shrine to thank the spirits of her ancestors for her election as Speaker of Parliament. Every pundit of any heft was in the mass media denouncing her for indulging in “devil worship”. The uproar only reaffirmed the tight hold colonialism has on our minds. Assuming Kadaga had gone to church for a thanksgiving service to honor Jesus Christ for her election, who would have complained?
We have totally internalised the ideology of our conquerers. Colonialists labeled our traditional religions “devil worship” in order to get us to accept Christianity. Our traditional doctors were labeled “witch doctors” thereby throwing away centuries of knowledge in local herbal medicine. True our society had not yet separated medicine from religion. But the stranglehold of the colonialist can be seen in how we deride anyone who visits a traditional shrine for spiritual healing or a traditional doctor for medical care.
The conquest of our minds has been thorough. Today, debate on the development (or lack of it) of Africa is conducted in terms that are akin to religion. Indeed, development itself has become a religion, perhaps the largest religion in the world today. It has a following larger than that of Christianity and Islam combined. And like all religions, it has developed creeds that are accepted on the basis of faith than evidence. Violation of these creeds is a sin that its high priests tell us is punishable by remaining mired in poverty and misery.
Take the example of corruption, one of the sins of development, which it is claimed, is the stumbling block to our rapid economic transformation. As I have argued before – to the ridicule of the development faithful – almost every country that rapidly grew from poverty to riches had high levels of corruption during its intense period of transformation. Today, China is industrialising as if on steroids yet corruption is endemic and getting worse. So why is corruption said to be Africa’s biggest development impediment?
As a caveat, I also think that in many of its manifestations, corruption is unfair. Public funds meant to serve a common good are diverted to private bank accounts to serve purely private appetite. But that is a moral not a development issue – and some can ask: whose morals?
In any case, corruption is a cousin of capitalism. Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism, especially his Labor Theory of Value, suggests a similarity between a capitalist and a corrupt official. Both “steal” from the public. Capitalist ideology may praise one and criminalise the other. But Marx would not have seen moral differences between the two.
Take another creed: that to develop you need democracy and respect for human rights as preconditions. Do we know of any country that had democracy and respected human and women’s rights before it industrialised? Certainly not UK, USA, Canada, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, etc. – the countries that make the biggest noise about democracy and respect for human rights being necessary (sometimes absolute preconditions) for development. African elites (including me of old) argue this creed with religious fanaticism. But it is based on faith, not evidence.
Sometimes when I indulge in conspiracy theories, I speculate that maybe the West promotes these issues as a strategy to divert African elites and their governments from addressing the real factors that undermine rapid economic growth and actual transformation of a society. Yet I know that even a concept as “The West” is nubilous because the West does not have a central brain and it is not univocal on these issues. Besides, the worst dangers to human social evolu-tion have rarely come from self-interested people but self-righteous ones especially when they are intoxicated with ideas they perceive as self-evident truths.
We can safely say that both corruption and authoritarianism have advantages and dis-advantages. We really do not know for sure when and how the disadvantages outweigh the advantages – or if that ever happens.
But I suspect that in the wider scheme of development, it is highly probable that the contribution of corruption or authoritarianism is insignificant. The factor with the most powerful impact on development is a country’s terms of trade i.e. the value of its exports relative to the value of its imports.
If the value of the commodities you export you have corruption, lack democracy and do not respect human rights. In fact, as you keep growing richer, you tend to produce new social forces and classes, which may demand and get an improved form of government with greater democracy, increased respect for human rights and more account-able government. This means better governance is a consequence of development, not the cause of it.
International trade is the arena where countries grow rich by selling dearly and importing cheaply. But it is also a form of hierarchy. Some countries produce cotton, others weave cloth and others market high fashion. Your earnings therefore depend on whether you sell raw cotton or designer shirts. A cotton farmer earns less than 0.01% of what Gucci or Louis Vuitton earn from selling the shirts made from her/his cotton. Some countries produce iron ore others make steel while others sell automobiles. Your earnings depend on the niche you occupy in this hierarchy.
If there is any substance in my claim here, it also means that Africa’s energy has been sucked into quarrels over peripheral issues like corruption, democracy, human rights, etc. In the process we ignored the more fundamental issues of the terms of trade that have the most fundamental implications on our capacity to develop. If most of our fights over democracy and corruption were fights over say, policy independence to build manufacturing by developing a local industrial class and on resisting WTO rules that relegate us to producers and exporters of raw materials, may be our economies would have performed much better.
My frustration, however, is that these heresies do not attract much attention because our brains are clouded with too much religious dogma – corruption, human rights, democracy blah blah blah. It is very difficult, nay impossible, to get a critical mass of African elites to see the real threats to our development. Often, they lie in the ideas we have internalised not the actions of our leaders. Our leaders, like ourselves, are slaves of these ideas.