Niger’s autocratic president, Mamadou Tandja has received an unusual rebuke from ECOWAS, the association of West African nations. He’s been told he faces “full sanctions” for his failure to leave office.
Tanja, who is a dictator in all but name of impoverished and landlocked Niger, wants to remain in office beyond two terms despite the country’s constitutional limit. He’s dissolved parliament and altered the constitution to provide a rationale for his continued stay in office. ECOWAS, a regional body that mainly influences policy on trade and security, generally takes a hands-off approach to internal politics of its members, only intervening in cases of civil war, if at all. The move against Tanja suggests a shift in the priorities of ECOWAS.
Niger is one of Africa’s poorest countries. Tanja’s insistence on ruling for many years more might be acceptable if he were an enlightened and effective leader. He is not. The people of Niger of suffered chronic food shortages under his rule, and he has failed to mount any credible attempt to meet the basic human needs of even some of the country’s population. Tanja did not deserve a second term; he hardly deserves a third one.
Calling Tanja a “pariah,” as an ECOWAS official did this month is hopefully not the end of the organization’s push to “retire” him. Tanja deserves his ouster. He is a flagrant case of AAD: aging-African-dictator syndrome. His country is desperately poor; aside from mineral deposits, which include uranium, Niger’s assets are few: even agriculture is difficult for its people. Tanja’s only compelling options are the organization of robberies against providers of humanitarian aid. And vanity. He likes the trappings of presidential life, which don’t call for monastic living even in one of the world’s poorest countries. Tanja’s rewards for sacrificing any chances for reform in benighted Niger seem laughably small compared to the problems he causes by hanging onto his office.
That Africa’s central leadership problem remains satisfying the vain requirements of old men is not in doubt. Mo Ibrahim’s ambitious foundation, which believed it had a plan to “incentivize” autocrats to leave the political scene by giving them cash awards for doing so, is no answer. This month the foundation admitted that there were no leaders who deserved the award this year, though surely candidates such as Tanja exist.
How to politically neutralize the Tanjas of Africa — who also go under such names as Mugabe, Bashir and Museveni — is usually presented as a task for the so-called internationally community: the United Nations and the like. Yet the task inevitably must fall to Africans themselves. The removal of African dictators — old men with outsized appetites and a lust for looting the state under their control — must be a project mounted in Africa, by Africans and for Africans. Whether the project succeeds isn’t the litmus test for whether to proceed.
Probably the best object I brought home from the trip to Kenya was a single painting by a Tanzanian named Sey Rashid Hussein who paints crowded city scenes in a capacious style called Tingatinga, after a self-taught painter in Tanzania of the same name. The real Tingatinga — a man named Eduardo S. Tingatings — flourished as a painter for a few brief years, decades ago. But after his death in a car accident, a few students of his kept painting — and today they represent a curious and quite satisfying current in contemporary African art.
The whole story was rendered brilliantly by Frank Whalley, a perspicacious Nairobi journalist with a deep knowledge of African art. Whalley writes a weekly colun on art for The East African, which is simply the finest regional weekly anywhere on the Continent. In a column earlier this month, which I read just as I arrived in Nairobi, Whalley eloquently argues for the enduring appeal of what might be East Africa’s finest style of indigenous painting.
After reading Whalley’s essay, I visited a gallery in Nairobi currently presenting a collection of new Tingatinga paintings. The exhibition is supported by a valuable catalog of new artists in the style., which mostly emphasizes exotic images of animals from the region. City scenes are a minor note in Tingatinga style, but the current I am most drawn to since I think the energy and improvisational flair of African urban life is often neglected in the obsessive concern among go-gooders for the social and physical shortcomings of these crowded, disorderly places. Of the pieces still available for sale, I found Sey’s people-packed view of Zanzibar Prison most compelling, and purchased it for a reasonable price. The painting,which survived two long flights on KLM, evokes memories of my visit a year ago to Zanzibar — and the mad-cap energy I often witness in Africa’s cities. That Sey chooses a prison as a metaphor for the battle between control and creativity in urban Africa speaks for itself.
I just returned from two weeks in and around Kenya. Police killings remain a big story these days; while in country, Nairobi cops gunned down five matatu workers, claiming these bus drivers and ticket takers were part of the notorious mungiki, or the organized gangs that compete with police and local government officials for the right to extort ordinary people in Nairobi and its environs. In response, matatu operators went on strike and for a time the police seemed likely to receive extra scutiny for their routine execution of suspected criminals. Alas, within days the protests withered and the government once more calmly talked of “reforming” police in due course.
The Financial Times published today a fascinating, if brief survey on high-end professional work in Africa. One bright story profiles an investment who has returned to his native Kenya after years abroad. Another looks at the ominous possibility of being kidnapped in Nigeria. For people born and raised in Africa, the number of high-end jobs, especially if South Africa is exclused, remains very small. But the demand for high skill is growing and wages too. Looming in the background of course is the subject of brain drain, which the FT’s superb Africa editor, William Wallis, handles with his usual skill. While talented Africans are returning to their lands in numbers much much higher than 20 years ago, the flow is a mere trickle when contrasted with the flood of departures. Highly educated Africans continue to leave even cities with the most opportunities at an alarming rate. Most head for either Europe or the U.S. Increasingly, Middle Eastern countries will attract African talent too. Alas, for the next few decades at least, no matter how many professional Africans return home, their numbers will be dwarfed by the steady flow of departures. While the truth hurts, the talented African still would rather success modestly in a foreign land than become a great success in his own country. The reasons are not purely economic either, which makes the problem more difficult to discuss or even identify.
One side note: The FT’s coverage of Africa continues to set the highest standard for breadth and sophistication. While the human touch is often absent from FT stories, the paper’s editors deserve applause for bringing coverage of African political-economic issues and news into the media mainstream.