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, January 15, 2018

The poverty of Africa’s elites

Why the tendency of African intellectuals to blame leaders for the failures of our nations is escapism 
I recently had a Twitter debate with Prof. George Ayittey; the Ghanaian author of `Africa Unchained: the blueprint for development’ (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2004) and scholar at the American University in Washington DC.

According to him, the problem of Africa is bad leadership and that 90% of the 238 presidents Africa has had since independence have been bad and selfish. This argument is common among African elites. However, although it has good political and emotive appeal, it lacks even basic intellectual reflection.

It is perhaps only in Africa where most intellectuals (and I hope not citizens) are waiting for that one hero-president who will change the country from poverty to riches. They, however, need to answer one question: Which president, prime minister or chancellor developed USA, UK, France, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Japan, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Italy, Canada, New Zeeland, Japan, etc. – the most advanced nations in the world?

The hero-leader example is picked from East Asia where in one generation and under one leader, the nation transformed from poverty to riches – Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Park Chung Hee in South Korea and Chiang Kai Shek in China.

Even a casual reading of the histories of these nations would show the engine of transformation was not the leaders but the evolved levels of social organisation diffuse across the entire society. Hence even without Lee, Singapore would have transformed. Look at Hong Kong. It didn’t have a Lee but achieved similar heights as Singapore.

Taiwan best illustrates this point. Chiang and his political party, the Kuomintang (or KMT) presided over a classic predatory state on mainland China. When chased away to Taiwan, the same leader and party presided over an economic miracle. Did Chiang undergo a personality or genetic mutation to achieve in Taiwan what he had failed to do on mainland China?

Studies I have seen look at the structure of interests to whom he was beholden on the mainland and how defeat restructured the power, interests, and incentives of the major social forces inside the KMT to explain Taiwan’s economic transformation.

This leadership fetish in Africa shows that our intellectuals and other elites want to escape their individual and group responsibility to the destiny of nations. This escapism leads them to play the blame game: “my country has failed because my president is bad man”. Ayittey’s Ghana has had 13 presidents in 60 years of independence. How could God (or fate) be so unfair that 13 out of 13 leaders have been bad and selfish? Ayittey and his ilk need to abandon their comfort in successful nations, go home, pull up their sleeves and try to make a difference.

If any citizens of any African country are waiting for one woman or man to become president and transform their country, they are not only doomed but also foolish. Leaders of African nations do not come from Japan or Norway.

They spring from within our societies and are propelled into power by domestic (with the help of foreign) forces and interests. Every government reflects its social base. So African leaders, individually as presidents and collectively with their domestic and foreign allies, can only design and implement policies for these interests and social forces. Therefore, whatever they achieve or fail at is a reflection of us.

There is a notion in development discourse that state policies are adopted on their own merits with their own rationality. That bad policy is a result of corruption or poor priorities or ignorance. There may be some truths to this, but it is only a small part of the truth. This approach ignores the fact that state policy has a social context. This approach fails (or refuses) to put the state in its social context.  What are the social forces that cluster around power and what are their interests?

When one looks at the nations of Africa critically, it becomes clear that the structure of interests in charge of power, the ideology of the elites in and outside of power and therefore the nature of the political institutions and public policies of these nations is not conducive to the social transformation we seek. Hence the state, because of this, has neither the will nor the strength to pursue a thoroughgoing project of social transformation.

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