Saturday, July 02, 2005

A Crisis of Leadership

New Statesman -- G8: Africa - Where exactly is the acclaimed "new breed" of progressive African politician? Without it, aid is like petrol on a fire. By Michela Wrong

Never one to mince his words, the former pop star was in full flow. "It's pathetic. I despair, I really despair." With the frustration of an angry teacher confronted by a class of rebellious teenagers, he let them have it: "Behave!"

The sight of a disgusted Bob Geldof scolding the Ethiopian government like a tetchy governess would have been funny if the topic hadn't been so serious. With at least 36 demonstrators shot dead in Addis Ababa, 3,000 detained, and opposition leaders and journalists under arrest, few were laughing.

Ethiopia's post-electoral crackdown could not have come at a more awkward time for Tony Blair's Commission for Africa. The awkwardness goes deeper than the passing embarrassment caused by seeing one of the commission's own members - Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi - revert to the brutal techniques of old-style African politics. It extends to the very foundations on which the Commission for Africa reports, which Britain will be urging G8 partners to embrace at Gleneagles.

If the scholarly and subtle Zenawi can go so wrong, after all, what does this say about the commission's confident claim: that an emerging "new breed" of progressive African leader - replacing the disastrous "Big Men" despots of the cold war - finally makes it possible for the west to engage fully with the continent?

And if the aid minister Hilary Benn's reaction to events in Addis Ababa was swiftly to suspend a promised £20m, what does that tell us about the commission's recommendation that aid should increasingly come stripped of conditionalities, be pumped straight into African government budgets and offered on a long-term basis, rather than on the stop-start, carrot-and-stick basis of yesteryear?

Such issues are unlikely to get much of an airing at Gleneagles. The various players will be focused on how many of the Commission for Africa's recommendations will be approved, rather than whether its formula for recovery - with its curiously dirigiste, old Lab-our emphasis on working through strong central government - could end up nurturing bad leadership on a continent that has already had its fair share of psychopaths and conmen.

Aid organisations active in the region are already preparing to denounce a missed opportunity. In the wake of the $40bn (£22bn) deal agreed by finance ministers, they expect little further movement on debt relief. While they would like G8 leaders to announce a target date for scrapping the subsidies that undermine African exports, they know that trade is the business of the World Trade Organisation, which meets in Hong Kong in December.

British officials are more sanguine, pointing out that Gleneagles is just part of a long-term process, and that if respected, the agreement reached by EU ministers in May - to increase aid to 0.56 per cent of national budgets by 2010 - already delivers much of the $50bn in aid that the Commission for Africa seeks to secure for the continent. Despite their mutual antagonism, the two groups share a strikingly similar vision of Africa. As they see it, much of the continent's crisis can be laid at the door of the west, which lent money to dictators it knew were corrupt, allowed its multinationals to bleed the continent of its res-ources, and has never let Africa trade on equal terms.

The end of the cold war changed everything, the optimists say. Two-thirds of sub-Saharan countries have staged elections in the past five years, coups are becoming a rarity, wars are waning, and African nations are eager to start policing one another. Although governance certainly remains an issue, democratic institutions are gradually being bolstered, allowing the debt relief and doubling of aid called for by the Commission for Africa to be put to effective use.

These commentators see themselves as pragmatists, determined not to allow distressing but momentary setbacks such as the Ethiopian shootings to distract from what is overall, they insist, an encouraging picture. In contrast with the 83 per cent of the British public who, according to a recent YouGov poll, believe western aid largely goes to waste in Africa, they are convinced they can work with current leaderships. "To bring change you need government. The fact is, even very corrupt governments can deliver development," a Treasury official told me with a shrug.

But it is possible to look at the same facts and come to a grimmer conclusion. As the academic Marina Ottaway points out, elections are not always quite what they seem. Like Mafia bosses going "legit", the greedy black elite that came to power after independence have smoothly adjusted to the west's new demands, playing the ethnic card, applying divide-and-rule and buying votes to win at the democracy game.

Kenya, where members of President Mwai Kibaki's new government are using exactly the same stratagems as Daniel arap Moi's cronies to enrich themselves, has been a depressing example. For citizens in Kenya, Ghana, Malawi and Zambia, who voted for change only to find it left them either worse off or as poor as ever, the commission's assurance that things are gradually improving sounds more than a little smug.

Theft at the highest levels of government in Africa remains so jaw-droppingly unrestrained that the situation raises questions about the very principle of debt relief. Last month, it was reported that over four decades Nigerian leaders had stolen a total of £220bn - almost exactly the amount of western aid given to the entire continent between 1960 and 1997. As a Lagos economist asked: "Who is to say you won't see the same behaviour again if [Nigeria's debt] is all written off?"

When it comes to the commission's belief that African wars are on the wane, well, the conflicts in Cote d'Ivoire, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia all blew up in the past decade; Rwanda's genocide is still fresh in our minds; and most journalists who cover Africa could point to half a dozen spots where new fighting looks either possible or highly likely.

As for the continent's new readiness to rein in its bad boys, the African Union's stubborn refusal to criticise Robert Mugabe for his recent razing of shanty towns leaves the much-vaunted notion of "peer review" looking decidedly threadbare. Mugabe's move has left homeless a quarter of a million Zimbabweans who made the mistake of voting for the opposition.

Perhaps my views are warped by the fact that when I first started writing about Africa, determined optimists would cite a quintet of nations - Botswana, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda - as proof that Africa was on the mend. Now, with Cote d'Ivoire cut in two, Ghana stagnating, Kenya mired in sleaze and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni seemingly bent on becoming president for life, that list has shrunk to a pitiful one. Heaven help us if anything goes wrong in Botswana.

Interestingly, while the "overall it's improving" vision of Africa is frequently embraced by westerners, Africans themselves, acutely aware of the frustrations of daily survival on the continent, are often scathing on the leadership issue. The Commission for Africa recipe gets short shrift from the Nigerian academic Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, who sees it as fatally premised on a partnership with what he calls "Africa's genocide states". Arguing on the openDemocracy website that aid has never been an instrument of large-scale socio-economic transformation, he says the single most useful thing the west can do is ban arms sales to the continent, cutting off the supplies that allow violent leaderships to remain in control.

And there is another reason why leadership may prove the fatal flaw in Britain's blueprint for recovery. While the "war on terror" barely features in the commission's report, many believe it risks making a mockery of the claim that the clientelism of the cold war era - when superpowers cared not a jot how favourites such as Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Mobutu Sese Seko and Moi ruled, as long as they remained loyal - is now over.

"The fact that Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's superhawk, is head of the World Bank is a clear demonstration that aid is primarily about foreign-policy interests," one aid analyst told me. "Wolfowitz is going to express foreign aid through the perspective of the war on terror, just as the International Monetary Fund used to during the cold war. Only fools think aid is about helping the poor."

Whether chanting behind the security barriers or gathered inside the conference rooms, few of those at the Gleneagles summit will be pondering whether a commission that set itself the Hippocratic aim of "First, do no harm" could, by flooding a poorly led continent with unprecedented levels of cash, in fact be throwing petrol on a fire.

But then, as an African businessman friend of mine sardonically remarked recently: "The trouble is that it's always western governments that have the good intentions, and we Africans who end up going to hell."

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