Is Africa resetting to the early1980s?

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Some of the founding members of the OAU

By Okwaro Oscar Plato

African leaders have historically converged in Addis Ababa Ethiopia to take stock of their successes and celebrate their “unity” – a perennially elusive standard for nations since the death of Kwame Nkrumah, and only fleetingly enjoyed buy elites, rulers and dictators. 

African liberation, since the 1990s when African intellectuals began to describe it as a “wave of democratisation” sweeping across the continent, has rapidly dismantled the vestiges of authoritarianism, military rule and satellite states. 

A conference of the African Union’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, for most of the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by military leaders, the likes of Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Samuel Doe, Yoweri Museveni, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Mobutu Sese Seko, Gnassingbe Eyadema, Jerry Rawlings, Muammar Gadaffi, Ibrahim Babangida, and so on. It also included some king chiefs and one-party supremos – Robert Mugabe, Daniel arap Moi, Kenneth Kaunda, Habib Borguiba, Omar Bongo, Paul Biya and Felix Houphouet-Boigny.  

The end of the Cold War led to the inevitable dismantling of its attendant relationships. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the collapse of client states that failed to quickly realign themselves with the new unipolar world order. “Smart states” like Angola and Uganda survived the first wave of reversals by “resetting” themselves to the priorities of the West, adopting donor policies even where those policies were so disruptive and disingenuous.

In other instances, age intervened where political change arrived in the form of either a smooth transition from father to heir – the path of choice for Gabon, Egypt and North Korea whose father-to-son political transitions have many admirers on the continent – or failed transitions like in the DRC, Tunisia (where a senile President Borguiba had to be led out of State House faculties impaired) and Malawi under Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

In 2010, there was fear that a wealthier Africa, with a real opportunity to participate in the global economy due to the growing importance of its natural resources, commodities and rapidly transforming urban populations, could start to look like the lost cause of the 1980s. This fear is not entirely unfounded, for the list of failed states continues to grow.

Already South Sudan has descended into ethnic mayhem as two intellectuals, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, battle for power; Burundi has followed suit. The list of failed states, in the path of their peer leaders of the 1980s, invite question mark attached to their future. After Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, (Kenya for a moment looked like a failed state after the 2007 election violence), the limits of authoritarianism were stretched to breaking point in Tunisia. Soon, seemingly, in most of Arab Africa, the cycle will be complete. 

The continent’s regions all have major failed states: Southern Africa has Zimbabwe, West Africa, Nigeria, Mali and the Ivory Coast, North Africa, Egypt and East Africa, Somalia. Major demographic states like the DRC and Sudan met this criterion a long time ago, unable to defend their borders and turning millions of their populations into “paper targets” for warlords.

The rest of the miracles left for the Western media to praise – Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Angola – are such a patchwork of reality that no story can withstand scrutiny. In fact, Western largesse remains largely mobilised to maintain parasitic relationships that continue to impoverish the poor, and have assembled impossible political bureaucracies at the helm to create the part cell phone-part teargas-part military state. 

A Nigerian American professor friend of mine, on his first trip to witness the economic miracle of Nairobi, summed it up thus: “Chaos and disorganisation.” He had landed in a middle of a blackout at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. In the city, he marvelled at the tourists on the streets and economic ventures at every street corner but appalled at the disorder of this economic miracle. 

In Uganda, many of Kampala’s hills, just like Kenyan forest reserves, are now dissected by beautiful villas. If you were flying, you might miss Nairobi’s slums. It’s only when you fly closer to the ground that you realise that if you suffered a heart attack, a boda boda is your best bet to get to a hospital in time, not an ambulance. This is best explained in our cities by the time our fire fighters take before reaching fire scenes.

Supreme denial

When you get to see the age of Kenya’s fire engines, you, like me, will wonder why riot police must wear Sh750,000 worth of anti-riot gear pinned to their bodies while the fire engines lie in such hazardous state.

Sadly, whenever we have a “Sudan”, “Burundi” or “Ivory Coast” in the news, the intelligentsia argues how this is just an exception, not a trend. Neat rows of ‘cooked’ statistics provide the “ammo” for these arguments. 

Only fearless, scientific, progressive and revolutionary thinkers can save Africa.

— Author is an analyst with Gravio Africa. The views are his own.

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