by Edwin Okong’o of New American Media
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she is carrying a new message of tough love to Africa. But changing the message is not enough. Africa’s leaders are used to talk. It doesn’t mean they will walk the walk.
In Ghana last month, President Barack Obama pointed out that at the beginning of the 1960s, Kenya, the country of his father’s birth, “had a per capita economy larger than South Korea’s.” Recently when Kenyans from the diaspora gathered in Boston to discuss how they can be more involved in the governance of their country, the question of why South Korea had overtaken Kenya came up. One cannot look at South Korea’s history and say that it’s too different from Kenya or many African countries. In the last 50 years, the Asian nation has had corruption, poor governance and violence and dictators – all major ingredients of the perils of the African continent.
As the conventioneers, most of who were born in the last half century, struggled to find the answer, Ali Mazrui, a renowned 76-year-old Kenyan-born professor at the State University of New York, came to the rescue. The answer, he said, was in the nature of the African dictator.
“Asian dictators tend to benevolent, while African dictators tend to be malevolent,” Mazrui said.
Mazrui explained that unlike African strong men, Asian dictators often put the interests of their countries first. That is perhaps why South Korea’s economy grew tremendously between 1963 and 1979, even as the world criticized President Park Chung-hee as an iron-fisted dictator.
Learning the nature of the African dictator would have helped Clinton reshape her message to the continent. The Obama administration should have noted that the president’s tough talk in Ghana about corruption and disregard of democracy had no effect on the leadership of the continent – the dictators were still firmly in business when Clinton left Washington, DC.
The Obama administration and the West in general need to understand that the African dictator no longer flinches when an American or a European opens his mouth. The African Big Man has learned over the years that there are no consequences for his actions. As Zimbabwe has proven, sanctions do not deter the African dictator.
What Africa needs are new, practical ideas. Yes, imposing a U.S. ban on corrupt individuals, as Clinton announced at the beginning of her tour in Nairobi, Kenya, signals a different approach. But European countries like Britain have tried this approach in vain over the last few years, as Africa’s corrupt have found alternatives in the Middle East and Asia, where they are less likely to be censured.
In Kenya Clinton also asked youth to fight corruption with technology.
“There ought to be a way to use interactive media, especially the Internet obviously, and some of the new vehicles like Twitter, etc., to report in real time allegations of corruption,” said Clinton.
But the citizens of most of the countries on her itinerary do not have easy access to the Internet. Also, technology is useless where there is disregard of the rule of law. In the words of Nuhu Ribadu, the former Nigerian anti-corruption czar now living in exile after an attempt on his life, in Africa “when you fight corruption, it fights back.”
Because dictators tend to respond to opposition with savagery, violent uprisings have only left Africans in a worse state than before war. Perhaps the continent’s hope lies in persuading its dictators to emulate their Asian counterparts. While historically Asian dictators have been as oppressive as African ones, they have built infrastructure that have helped their citizens move products around quickly, and trade amongst themselves. This freedom to move easily seems to have helped Asians a great deal.
Rather than call for a total end of corruption, we need to be practical and ask African leaders to reduce corruption enough for citizens to enhance their livelihood. We should let African leaders know that most Africans do not need handouts from the government. All they need is to be enabled. In my birthplace of southwestern Kenya, for example, rotting avocados fall from trees like cluster bombs while there is a shortage in Nairobi. My mother and other farmers in the area would have made a good living if a benevolent dictator had constructed a highway to enable them to get to Nairobi and back on the same day.
Again, Africa leaders have proven immune to criticism. Civil wars have led to failed states. It is time to try a safer, more practical approach.