About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, October 28, 2013

Do suffering Africans a favour, don’t help them

People who are not willing to fight for their freedom and pay the highest price for it do not deserve to be free

The idea that only the international community (read the West) can save Africa has gained hegemonic status. This is expressed in many ways: in efforts to end poverty, in human rights advocacy, economic reforms, feeding the hungry, treating the sick, keeping the peace, “ending impunity,” providing shelter, paying for education; in almost everything under the sun, we are being conditioned to believe that our salvation cannot come from our initiatives but from external benefactors. Across Africa, many elites are convinced that someone good out there should do the job for us.

For example, many African elites that support the International Criminal Court (ICC) say; “Oh, our rulers are venal and beyond our control. If someone out there can help us get rid of them, and bring justice to their victims, he is welcome.” On the face of it, this argument seems to be self-evidently correct. Upon close examination, it proves why even the well-intentioned should stay away from Africa because ultimately this argument is defeatist and compounds the problem. If our leaders are venal, what are we doing about it?

Europeans confronted worse despots than any African country. In just six years of World War Two alone for instance, Europe lost more lives than Africa has lost through all its civil wars combined over the last 50 years. Through their own political struggles during which they suffered a lot, Europeans managed to tame their leaders. If their accountability institutions work, it is because they organically evolved out of their own efforts, were nourished by a nutrient culture and involved lots of hard-nosed bargains and compromises. They reflect the actual balance of power between state and society.

It is not true that Africa lacks such initiatives. When our founding fathers – Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Amilcar Cabral, Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta, Patrice Lumumba, Milton Obote, Robert Mugabe, etc – confronted colonial injustice, they did not sit passively calling upon a kind international community to save the situation. They took the colonial bull by the horns. Careers were abandoned, educations sacrificed, property destroyed, lives lost and many spent years in jail fighting for freedom, equality and human dignity.

Yet, political progress does not follow a linear process. Thus, some of these leaders retreated to the instruments of the colonial state to repress their citizens. Bad rule stimulated fresh political contestations. This led to the second generation of struggle for better governance. One group sought protracted armed struggle. It saw Yoweri Museveni, Meles Zenawi, Paul Kagame, Isaias Afewerki, Charles Taylor, etc leading the initiative. They did not wait for the 5th Calvary of the international community to stand for what they believed.

The second group was the civil disobedience led against the single party state or the military junta by such men Frederick Chiluba, Bakiri Muluzi, Abdullai Wade, Raila Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, Laurent Gbagbo, Etiene Tshishikedi, Robert Soglo, Albert Zafe, etc. They organized youths, traders, workers, peasants and students in the struggle for better governance. None of the leaders and their colleagues in the struggle ran to London or Paris to save the situation. If external help was welcomed, it was seen as secondary, not decisive.

Political reality forced all these leaders to make compromises and accommodations with the forces they opposed. Former adversaries were integrated in new armies (as in Uganda and Rwanda) or co-opted into the political process (Zambia, Ghana etc). The frontiers of democracy were expanded but not to our satisfaction. Some of these leaders repeated the practices they criticized in their predecessors. This is understandable. Even in Europe and North America, the struggle for democracy has been long and odious. Many of us today are unhappy with our governance. However, whatever deficits and frustrations exist, they should inspire us to organize, not to agonize.

Yet many elites in Africa, may be out of cowardice, irresponsibility, ignorance, laziness, opportunism or sheer ideological bankruptcy, don’t organize. They agonize. They don’t want to sacrifice anything for what they want. Rather than exercise agency (and be active participants in the struggles for their own emancipation), they want to be passive spectators watching the “international community” do the fighting for them. Instead of justice, liberty, freedom, democracy etc. being a result of their initiative, they want them as humanitarian gifts.

This is embarrassing and self defeating – they are literally throwing up their arms and saying: we cannot bring these bad leaders to justice ourselves. We are weak and incompetent to shape our destiny. We need ICC to do it for us. In one stroke, they have abdicated their civic duties and responsibilities to someone else. And if I were that kind/generous someone else, I would not accept this nonsense. Those who accept do so because they have ulterior interests as well - to exercise power and control over us.

It is also difficult to understand where these African elites get the confidence to believe in these foreign interventions. In the last decade, America and her Western allies have intervened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to remove dictators and establish democracy. In all these cases, what the citizens have gotten is not democracy, justice or freedom but state collapse, civil war, terrorism, death and massive societal dislocation. Countries where the struggle was domestically led like Egypt and Tunisia may have problems but have not degenerated into the chaos we see with foreign invasions.

The lesson from this is simple but powerful. External actors cannot solve anyone’s problems. We may be frustrated with our leaders, yes. But that should not be the point of resignation but of inspiration. We stand at a historic opportunity to make a contribution to the progress of mankind by taking the initiative to change our circumstances. Foreign assistance is welcome and needed, but only as a secondary force under our control and direction. It should only advise but not dictate our struggle.

At all times, the struggle for our emancipation must remain in our hands because it is we who know our reality best. Our struggles will be long and costly, they will involve many compromises and concessions but it should be our struggle, led by us and for us. We cannot outsource it to anyone else because we don’t know their motives and even if they were genuine, they cannot appreciate our political necessity better than us.


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