Amnesia and self-interest cloud the debate on Africa

MICHAEL PEEL – The Financial Times

Africa is in the news once again and the prisms used to analyse it have been dusted off and polished up. In the run-up to the publication yesterday of the report of the Africa Commission set up by Tony Blair, the prime minister, Alan Duncan, the shadow international development secretary, regretted that the document placed “blame and obligations on donors, but no sufficient corresponding obligations on recipients”.
Hilary Benn, his opposite number, said he had “no time for cynics” who saw the report as a British public relations exercise rather than a genuine attempt to change the west’s exploitative and self-interested approach to the continent.
Much analysis about Africa seems stuck in this false and destructive binary. One side lectures Africa about its “responsibilities” for sorting out its problems, as if the slave trade, imperial occupation and the creation of nation states with complete disregard for traditional cultural boundaries never happened. It stems from the same self-justifying colonial-era prejudice that tried to legitimise western plunder by portraying Africa as a place of funny customs and helpless people who periodically exterminated each other in inexplicable tribal conflicts.
The other view, an adaptation of an argument used by opportunistic African politicians, is what some observers describe as “Afro-optimism” and is also ultimately self-serving. It asserts that focusing on Africa’s conflicts, corrupt political systems and horrifying poverty sells short those leaders who speak of reform, and is insulting to the continent’s spirited people, who are progressing gradually, if erratically, and are happier than the west gives them credit for. Proponents of this argument find common cause with foreign multinationals active in Africa, such as Diageo, the British food and drink company, which sponsors an annual award for journalists who eschew negative reporting of the continent in favour of a “fairer balance”.
This portrayal ignores a basic fact: it is possible to admire ordinary Africans’ extraordinary against-the-odds creativity, work ethic and cultural durability while simultaneously deploring a system that makes these qualities in adversity so necessary. The equation of critical commentaries plus cynicism has helped create a sense that ordinary people are better off than they are, making it easier for rich nations to maintain the suffocating status quo.
The western debate on Africa typically lacks the two things it needs most: subtlety and historical depth.
It is far more rewarding to look at the more detailed debate about Africa’s future that goes on at street level. This vigorous and urgent discourse is appalled by rich nations’ hypocrisy but is also much more robust than self-interested foreign governments or western liberals in holding to account African governments that are perceived to be failing or criminal, or both.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is a case in point. The corrupting influence of western businesses, particularly oil companies, is widely deplored. Many Nigerians think those same oil interests make the west soft on President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government over human rights abuses and for overseeing the entrenchment of a venal and violent political system.
For many Nigerians, foreign views of Nigeria are either ignorant or positive to the point of dishonesty about the impact of limited, inchoate and sometimes controversial reforms promoted by Mr Obasanjo’s economic team as part of a campaign for debt relief.
On Lagos’s boisterous streets – the samizdat broadcasting network of a country ill-served by mostly slavish state television and radio stations – traders and craftspeople complain about the country’s bloated banking system, ups and downs in agricultural product prices and poor roads, power and sanitation. Or, as development workers might put it, the systemic problems include lack of access to capital, uncontrolled market fluctuations and a shortage of infrastructural capacity. Nigerians and other Africans have been saying for years what it has taken the Blair commission until 2005 to set out.
For all the commission’s many sensible recommendations, it is a reminder of how previous plans died when exposed to rich nation self-interest. The commission, whose 17 members include the heads of government of Britain, Ethiopia and Tanzania, argues for increased aid, debt relief, removal of rich-country trade barriers and more action to stop multinational corruption and help return looted funds.
Yet great scepticism is justified for any proposals driven by London, which continues to leach African wealth such as the more than Dollars 1bn processed through British financial institutions by the late Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha and his associates.
In its attempts to present an impression of progress in Africa, Mr Blair’s government seems to share with its more conservative critics a sense that such past and present outrages are no longer relevant. When Gordon Brown, the chancellor and a commission member, visited Tanzania in January, he said Britain should stop apologising for the mistakes of colonialism and consider how to tackle African poverty today. If the commission’s leading rich nation backer exhibits such wilful amnesia, the latest international spasm of interest in Africa is hardly starting in the reforming, liberating and nuanced spirit the continent so desperately needs.
The writer is the FT’s west Africa correspondent




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