Afro-Pessimism and African
By Wafula Okumo
April 5, 2001
It is most likely that when one reads a story in the foreign media or eavesdrops on foreigners talking about Africa it will be a rueful tale of doom and gloom. Sometimes, as an African living in a foreign land it is hard to hold my head and keep my chin up for fear of being identified and called on to answer for the ills wrought on Africa by people who have no relations to me. There were a number of times when I received sorrowful looks that seemed to be reminding me how lucky I am to be away from Africa. I can vividly recall the number of occasions when I was literally told to shut up when commenting on issues relating to Africa. Of course those who attempted to muzzle my freedom of speech are the same ones who are partly responsible for Africa's plight.
Since the 1980s we have been witnessing the spiraling of Afro-pessimism and melancholic conclusions that nothing good will ever come out of Africa. In 1983, futurist author Paul Kennedy prophesied that Africa's future was "extraordinarily gloomy." Such pessimistic pronouncements of Africa's future were reinforced by western journalists such as David Lamb (in The Africans), Peter Marnham (in Dispatches From Africa), Blaine Harden (in Africa - Dispatches from a Fragile Continent), and Keith Richburg (in Out of America), who brazenly painted Africa in dreary terms: unbridled corruption, state brutality, severe underdevelopment and general desolation. Robert D. Kaplan, who wrote a widely-read essay entitled "The Coming Anarchy" in Atlantic Monthly magazine) did not mince words and declared Africa to be "at the edge of the abyss." While some of these western observers of Africa have written off Africa as a hopeless case, some, such as Blaine Harden, are optimistic that African can be saved under a special program such as a Marshall Plan.
Not to be left out of this apocalyptic clairvoyance, The New Republic on June 16, 1997, devoted the issue to the theme of "Africa is Dying." In its editorial it argued that what is happening in Africa "is nothing less than Africa's exit from international society." All major western newsmagazines have carried out special issues over the years echoing similar views. The most recent, and controversial, western newsmagazine (in the Economist of July 2000) story that virtually wrote Africa off and exasperated the feeling of many Africans was for a while a reference article in major international forums.
Africans have also become Afro-pessimists. Among them is Michael Chege, an African scholar at the Center for African Studies of University of Florida, who has predicted that Africa is the only region in the world where poverty and political violence are likely to increase in the opening years of this Century. He has been joined by other African scholars such as Jean-Francois Bayart (author of Criminalisation of the State in Africa) and Patrick Chabal (author of Africa Works: Disorders as Politician Instrument), who have alluded to the dysfunctional nature of the Africa state and society.
Why is Afro-pessimism so pervasive and on the increase worldwide?
Although I recognize the role the foreigners, particularly Europeans and Americans have played in making Africa one of the poorest places on earth, I fully hold the African leaders accountable. It is tempting, but facile, to generalize that Africa's problems are self-inflicted by vaulting political ambitions of its leaders. However, it is hard not to see Africa's pathetic leadership in the wider context as a reflection of Africa's persistent failure to throw up progressive leaders, not merely colorful visionaries seeking to rewrite history with themselves as central players.
The Banyankole of Uganda have a saying that: if a home has no head, it will have visitors in every corner 24 hours a day. The international attention given to Africa by altruistic non-governmental organizations, mischievous media, and weary governments has blurred the fact that Africa is likely to remain in this chaotic state for a very long time even if outsiders increase their attention. Potential and present leaders have become addicted to being showered or supported by handouts from the US, Western Europe and international financial institutions. The best-qualified people in Africa cannot run and take over power without outside support. Unless they were part of the system that they are trying to get rid after falling out with loaded bank accounts stuffed with money pilfered from the state, those challenging governments such as Moi's, Mugabe's and Biya's must have foreign backers to seriously contend for power.
Despite the existence of mountains of information that their countries are on the precipice of doom African leaders have dithered, waffled and procrastinated and played survival politics. Many of them, with political rhetoric and hyperbole at their hearts, have not only failed to take decisive measures to address these problems but have instead engaged in double-speak and blame games. In African countries, the presidency is the heart and the engine of the state and in most instances the bane of the nation. Whoever is the head of state finds it his manifest destiny to indulge in African leaders' favorite pastime, namely cronyism, nepotism and outright plunder of national resources through the distribution of the national carcass. The national carcass is political lordship, monopoly of state violence and its application, or material and financial benefits. It is because of this that African leaders have been variously and aptly referred to as "Eating Chiefs." An African president is someone with extreme political power but essentially an Autocrat, a Tsar, a Kaiser, a Big Parochial Boss.
Instead of serving their people, African leaders have looted and plundered state coffers with impunity and in utter disregard and contempt of the peoples' needs. African leaders have yet to understand that they have a moral, political and economic responsibility to serve their people in a more ethical, accountable and transparent manner. Instead, most of them use xenophobic policies which, coupled with the country's economic decline have worsened ethnic tensions. With boundless energies, African leaders are known to excel in oppressing their people when they are not lavishly and conspicuously spending. The best example of such a leader is the late Nigerian strongman, Sani Abacha. Abacha not only spent his time amassing billions of dollars that not even five generations of his family would be able to spend in their lifetimes, but also threw in a murder or two on the side as he kept count of the loot. It is rumored that Abacha died while having fun with a trio of cocottes.
Africa is replete with "white elephants," prestigious projects with no economic utility, build by narcissistic leaders. Ivory Coast is a typical place to observe how grandiosity and spending lavish amounts of public money on leaders' villages can border on the absurdity. Henri Konan Bédié who succeeded Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 might be criticized for steering one of the most prosperous and stable African countries into a complex political emergency but his villagers will always remember him as a great son. Like Houphouët-Boigny who turned his birthplace Yamoussoukro into the country's capital and Mobutu who turned his village of Gbadolite into modern city, Bédié made sure that Daoukro, a remote town with a population of only 14,000, had the best roads in the country. Driving in or out of Daoukro one might think he or she has happened upon an American suburb. Its roads are free of potholes, have visible dividing lines, shoulders meticulously marked off and signs warning of schoolchildren crossing, setting speed limits, naming each little village at least three times. Among other hugely expensive public works projects he constructed were a new hotel and a nightclub. The new Hôtel de la Paix, with three separate bungalows for private presidential meetings, now looks like a ghost building. This and many other lavish projects have started deteriorating as those in Yamoussoukro.
It seems as if Bédié was trying to outdo Houphouët-Boigny who had turned forest, cocoa and coconut plantations into a modern city with a six-lane boulevard, luxury hotels, and a presidential palace surrounded by artificial lagoons alive with crocodiles. However, Houphouët-Boigny left in Yamoussoukro what no other leader in Africa can match. He built the world's largest church--the Notre Dame de la Paix basilica-that is even bigger than St. Peter's in Rome. The basilica, built at an estimated cost of more than $300 million, has hand-blown French stained glass in 4,000 different tints and tons of marble shipped from Italy to cover a 7.4-acre esplanade. Each of the 7,000 seats in the basilica has an individual air-conditioning duct. The basilica, whose compound is untended, now has cracks in the marble esplanade and a few hundred worshippers.
Most African leaders are openly clumsy. Take for instance Henri Konan Bédié who enthusiastically presided over a corrupt government, manipulated elections, and changed the laws to exclude his main rival, Alassane D. Quattara, a Prime Minister under Houphouët-Boigny. Quattara was disqualified by Bédié on the grounds that one of his parents had come from Burkina Faso. Surprisingly, Bédié's quest to exclude Quattara from running against him led to his overthrow by Gen. Robert Guei, who first swore not to run for the presidency but changed his mind and used Bédié's tricks book to stay in power. He was forced out of power but iniquitously the new leader is also relying on Bédié's tricks book to run the country down.
Other contemporary African leaders who deserve a place on the list of the clumsy are: Mugabe, Chiluba, and Moi. Mugabe, in a fight with nature, is trying to transmogrify himself to match his young wife and to justify his continued stay in power by significantly reducing his age. Chiluba, miffed over the years by Kaunda's dismissal of his challenge by reference to his diminutive stature turned the tables on Kaunda by changing the Constitution to bar him from running for the presidency on the grounds that his parents were originally from Malawi. This clause was inserted in the constitution notwithstanding the fact that man had ruled Zambia for 27 solid years. Moi, on his part has gained infamy in western capitals for his awkward ways of demanding handouts whenever visiting there or when foreign dignitaries pay courtesy calls on him.
If there is one place where the travails bedeviling Africa can be found it is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or former Zaire. Congo, a land that is rich in diamonds, gold, copper and cobalt, is now impoverished by years of misrule and widespread corruption. Besides its world class musicians the Congo has also produced one of the world's best known ignominious leaders, Field Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko. After more than three decades of misrule and plunder of his country the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted from power in May 1997 following a Uganda- and Rwanda-sponsored rebellion led by Laurent Desire Kabila. Although initially hailed by the world community as the avenging angel who liberated his people from the clutches of a kleptocracy presided over by Mobutu Sese Seko, he quickly alienated himself when he invited close friends and relatives into the government. He also angered investors, obstructed a United Nations investigation of reports that his rebel army had slaughtered thousands of Hutu refugees, and consistently violated the Lusaka peace accords aimed at ending the war in the DRC.
He sequestered himself in a hilltop residence near downtown Kinshasa, known as the Marble Palace, which was always heavily guarded by soldiers and a North Korean-made tank. At the time of his assassination Kabila had become the only one in his class. Few leaders anywhere have as many enemies and are as mistrusted by their allies as was Kabila. The Congolese are still in mourning their "liberator" while his son, Joseph, has now been installed as their new president. Joseph Kabila has not had a honeymoon as he has to continue the contest from where his slain father left off for control of Africa's third largest country with other power-hungry contenders.
But are these hackneyed power-hungry rebels seeking to succeed Laurent Kabila and Mobutu better alternatives? A look at these rebel leaders reveals what is wrong with African leadership and why Africa will be doomed for a long time if political power continue to attract such characters. The saddest part of this story is that the names of the players in the DRC could easily be substituted with those in Sudan, Sierra Leone, or Angola and the story will read the same.
The epitome of Congo's corrupted power is Major Jean-Pierre Ondekane, the man referred to and treated as "Vice President" by the Emile Ilunga/Bizima Karaha group that was seeking to wrestle power from Laurent Kabila in the DRC. This is a man who, in his Kisangani residence and tactical command post, wakes up at 10am to a sumptuous breakfast served by smiling light-skinned Congo beauties. After feasting on both the food and the beauty of his servants he takes a bath and while dressing has a dozen men fighting to tie his shoelaces as he watches recorded videos showing the atrocities committed by his men in the field. Over 50 soldiers carrying rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns guard his house whose entrance is decorated with drums of fuel and compound is dotted by sleek new Nissan Patrols (Pathfinders).
While this is the way Jean-Pierre Ondekane puts on his show that gives a glimpse of how he will run the country he is destroying, other African rebel leaders, including the rag-tag and aimless fellows like Johnny Paul Koroma and General "Mosquito" of Sierra Leone and Joseph Kony leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, apply sadistic means such as chopping off people's heads or other body parts. None of these notorious rebel leaders hides the fact that theirs is not a struggle against dictatorship and for justice but for wealth and ego.
Ondekane's rivals in the Congo are equally less impressive. The one time highly regarded Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba is a sad display of the toll the Congo conflict has taken on the country. The man who used to be an energetic, articulate and dashing figure now looks spiritless and aged despite the clumsy dyeing of his gray hair. To see him one has to visit his residence at Stotesxi and contact a horde of aides who take ages to decide whom Wamba should meet. Watching them at work is a classic show of the highest state of disorganization. If one is lucky to meet "the future president of the Congo" it will immediately become apparent that here is a man who is detached from what he is doing. The professor speaks in a faltering, inaudible voice and takes about one thousand words to explain a point when all he needs are ten words.
Then there is Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) leader, who has been rated as the best organized of all those seeking to oust (Laurent) Kabila from power. Bemba is essentially a rich boy fascinated with the idea of being hailed as leading a group with the best chance of taking power from Kabila. He will stop whatever he is doing to meet a journalist, take the wheels of a fancy off-roader typical of Colombian drug lords and give a tour of his accomplishment and proof of how he is adored by his people. Whenever he arrives at any of the small airports that dot Eastern Congo he demands parades to be mounted for his inspections.
Bemba's show is typical of Congo's leadership that includes the likes of Emile Ilunga, Willy Mishiki, and Moise Nyarugabo. They all are engaged in a game of hoodwinking the international community into believing their versions of the Congo problem by using satellite telephones with which they declare "territories captured" and organizational structures "built." What this simply means is that they have captured a territory turned it into a fiefdom, are levying taxes and run dungeons they call prisons. No wonder many Congolese are now nostalgic of Mobutu's kleptomaniac rule that they point out did not kill but just robbed them.
Talking or listening to Congolese rebel leaders one will hear them outline grandiose military and political plans of taking over the reigns of power from the video-watching, sex-addicted, seven-meal-a-day Laurent Kabila, who, before he was assassinated, held only one-third of the country. One wonders how the characters, intelligence, capacities and lifestyles displayed by the Congolese leaders are the characteristics the Congolese should expect of the new leadership that is needed to rebuilt their severely traumatized and underdeveloped nation.
It is saddening to note that the DRC's neighbors have taken advantage of its chaos to siphon its wealth. By claiming patronage of the rebels, Uganda and Rwanda have send in their troops as has Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia that are supporting Kabila. But it is common knowledge that these foreign troops are now shooting themselves through the DRC in search of its mineral wealth rather than to restore democracy, justice and peace.
While Uganda, Rwanda and Angola are using the pretext of wiping out rebels who have been attacking and killing their people, Zimbabwe's purpose is hard to fathom since it now has a crumbling economy that cannot afford millions of dollars needed to maintain its troops in the DRC. An explanation that has now gained currency is that Mugabe is using the DRC to divert attention of his military from their poor conditions by enabling them to enrich themselves by pillaging the DRC. This sounds not dissimilar to what Taylor is doing in Sierra Leone by acting as a conduit of Foday Sankoh's illicit diamonds.
The Congo is a classic example where the African concept of brotherhood has gone awfully wrong: Africans are enthusiastically enriching themselves at the expense of each other. In view of this shameful reality, one is justified to ask the question: what is the difference between these Africans looting their own people and the European imperialists? The Congolese warlords are almost matching the Belgian brutality in their ferocious search for ill-gotten wealth.
Looking at Africa today one is dumbfounded by the prevalence of leaders who are obsessed with outdoing each other. It is frightening to note how the likes of Moi, Mugabe, (Laurent) Kabila, Bedie and others shamelessly tried to replay what happened in Rwanda, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In view of where we have been, where we are and apocalyptic future wished on us Africa needs a savior. Africans need nothing but visionary leaders who can intelligently utilize its rich human and natural resources for the present and future generations. This leadership must also combine pragmatism and sobriety. It is this model leadership that is the subject of the next article on our on-going series on African leadership.