Saturday, Nov. 26, 2005
For brutal honesty on the causes of Africa’s woes, it’s hard to beat Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria. Written during the country’s rowdy 1983 election campaign, the book, just 68 pages long, is an outpouring of frustration at Nigeria’s problems. You only have to read the contents page to tap into Achebe’s angst. The author ó best known for Things Fall Apart, a powerful work of fiction that almost half a century after its release still tops lists of Africa’s greatest novels ó uses blunt prose to deliver the message in Trouble. Chapter headings telegraph his views: “False Image of Ourselves”; “Social Injustice and the Cult of Mediocrity”; “Indiscipline”; “Corruption.” Achebe lays out his case in the book’s very first sentence: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”
Many Nigerians agreed, and Africans across the continent reached similar conclusions about their own countries. Which is why, in the mid-1990s, when a new generation of leaders emerged, Africans dared to hope that things could finally be changing. People like Issaias Afewerki in Eritrea, Laurent Kabila in Democratic Republic of Congo, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia promised a new style of leadership that focused on building economies and democratic nations instead of shoring up their power by force and ensuring that they and their friends got rich. When President Bill Clinton visited Africa in 1998, he touted this generation as Africa’s great hope.
The reality has rarely matched the hype. Within months of Clinton’s visit, Rwanda and Uganda had invaded Congo, and Eritrea and Ethiopia had gone to war with each other. While some leaders ó notably Museveni and Zenawi ó still did enough to remain darlings of Western donors, even they have now begun to slide. In Ethiopia, Zenawi has sent troops onto the streets to stop opposition supporters protesting the results of a general election last May. In Uganda, an increasingly dictatorial Museveni announced two weeks ago that he will run for office again, following Parliament’s decision to scrap term limits that would have forced him to retire. That long-expected bulletin came just days after his main opponent was thrown in prison on charges ó vehemently denied ó of treason and rape. Demonstrations have been temporarily banned.
So, Achebe’s lament still holds true, then? No. Fixing Africa was never as simple as changing its leaders. And that’s why the fall from grace of Museveni and Zenawi may prove a positive thing, even if they hurt their own countries in the short term. It’s a reminder, especially to Western countries that invested so much in Africa’s new leaders, that strong institutions are far more important than personalities. Good leaders can turn bad if they stay in office long enough: faults become obvious; people compromise to hold onto power; supporters get frustrated with the inevitable slow pace of change. It’s not just Africa. There are plenty of erstwhile supporters of Tony Blair who would be happy to see the back of him. The same goes for one-time fans of Jacques Chirac and George Bush. A key difference is that the institutions in the countries those men lead ó parliament, the judiciary, the press ó are bigger than any one person and counterbalance the worst excesses. That’s still not a given in Africa.
Take Zimbabwe. Even five years ago, the country boasted one of the best judiciaries in Africa. Voters could make their voices heard, as they did in 2000 when they rejected a new constitution backed by President Robert Mugabe. The independent press was amongst the feistiest on the continent. Over the past few years, though, Mugabe and his henchmen have bludgeoned the opposition into near submission, rigged elections, closed down the independent press and forced most of the country’s best judges into retirement. Mugabe, once hailed as a great new African leader himself, has proved more powerful than his country’s institutions.
There is progress, of course. Kenyans last week rejected a new constitution backed by lackluster President Mwai Kibaki ó elected just three years ago in a wave of reformist zeal ó because of concerns that the proposals vested too much power in his office. (Kibaki promptly sacked his entire Cabinet.) Voters in Ghana, Senegal and Zambia have all elected opposition parties since the turn of the century. Such peaceful shifts prove that institutions in some countries are becoming strong enough to survive change and are not merely dependent upon, or at the mercy of, whoever sits in the presidential palace. Ethiopia and Uganda are also vastly better off than they were before Zenawi and Museveni took power; the backsliding hasn’t wrecked all the good work the men have done. But their tainted legacies are a lesson. “A leader’s no-nonsense reputation might induce a favorable climate but in order to effect lasting change, it must be followed up with a radical program of social and economic reorganization,” writes Achebe in The Trouble with Nigeria. In other words, good leaders are good, but strong institutions are even better.
From the Dec. 05, 2005 issue of TIME Europe magazine
SIMON ROBINSON – TIME