Chinua Achebe’s death at the age of 82 robs us of a great man but compels us to appreciate anew his stunning works of fiction, essays and memoir. Achebe spoke to Africans and non-Africans differently but urgently. For more than half a century he delivered revelatory insights about both the African condition and the human condition. In dying, he leaves a body of writing unmatched by any West African. While he never won the coveted Nobel Prize for literature, he received virtually every other literary acolade and won a place in the pantheon of the greatest 20th century writers. Achebe was beyond comparison but by anaology he was, in my view, what Orwell was for the British and what Camus was for the French. While his greatest works of fiction came in his youth, and while he lived for decades in a self-enforced excile in the United States, he was first and last a Nigerian, committed to the progress of his country. Even as he despaired of Africa’s problems, even as he wrote in sometimes contradictory ways about his education as a “British-protected child,” he took solace in his insistence that Africans would someday become the beacon of hope, intelligence and wisdom that he believed they were destined to become. At bottom, Achebe was a writer of conscience, of dignity, of purpose and seriousness. If Ngugi of Kenya bemoaned the colonization of the African’s mind by the colonial oppressor and neo-colonial experience, Achebe asked that we try our best to transcend the limitations of the past and to recognize that every tragedy contains within it a new dawn.
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The discerning editors at the august and influential World Policy Journal have produced an important issue devoted to the political economy of the sub-Saharanm entitled “Africa’s Moment.” Of special value in the issue are the conversation with Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, and a series of contributions, by African thinkers, addressing the important question of “what role should technology play in Africa’s development.”
The following framing paragraph from the WPJ editors both sets the tone of the special issue and underscores the profound shift in attitudes about the future of a region once often dismissed as hopeless and increasingly viewed as a global success story with plenty of good news to come:
“Africa has had moments of hope and optimism in the past, but this one seems different. The diverse continent of 54 sovereign nations appears ready for a genuine, lasting takeoff. Over the last decade, six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies have been African. Across the continent, civil wars and despots are giving way to prosperity and democracy. Mobile technology has revolutionized nearly every aspect of life. Underwater aquifers have been mapped under some of Africa’s driest regions.”
Formal training in computer science and engineering is undergoing a revolution in East and West Africa. More than a decade after the introduction of the affordable Internet and low-cost computers to each of these African sub-regions, the era of self-taught, bottoms-up software programming and computer science is coming to an end. Formal, university-based CS education is growing in quality in East and West Africa, promising deeper, more sustainable understanding of digital technologies in these sub-regions. As I described in a lecture given on the Univeristy of California on March 13, in the best universities in Uganda and Ghana, new and increasingly original research is laying the foundations for the creation of authentic and even world-class CS knowledge enterprises, especially at the nexus of mobile communications, media and information services. The first evidence of an authentic East African research agenda is beginning to be seen. Obstacles to East and West Africans joining the mainstream of global CS research remain stubbornly high, but because of unique social, economic and cultural conditions in East and West Africa, the possibility is growing that CS researchers from these sub-regions will make significant, world-class contributions in coming decades. More broadly, the emergence of CS in sub-Saharan Africa could help orient digital innovation more towards the authentic needs and realities of life in developing regions, thus helping to reduce and perhaps (ultimately) nullify an innovation “gap” that has disadvantaged peoples of the developing world since the dawn of digital computing.
Alex De Waal is among the most trenchant observers of African affairs and his new essay, “The Theory and Practice of Meles Zenawi,” carries revelatory force. In his article, De Waal tries to rescue Zenawi, who died last August, from an unfair assessment by critics of his role as Ethiopia’s prime minister and domineering political personality over the past quarter century. That Zenawi contradicted the neo-liberal concensus on economic development is de Waal’s starting point. He importantly highlights the possibility that Meles’s body of ideas represent “an authentically African philosophy of the goals and strategies of development.” How successful Meles was in promoting and managing development, alas, is not part of the essay’s scope. Meles deserves more attention as a thinker on African development; de Waal is right to highlight this basic truth. But what kind of development he achieved in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s growth stars in the 21st century, deserves more examination. The question of the extent to which Ethiopian development has reiforced or expanded inequality challenges those who will carry on the task of building on Meles’ various legacies, however defined. May de Waal expand his essay into a book on this intriguing, contradictory and essential political leader.
Writing and analyzing the history of sub-Saharan Africa — especially the history prior to the decolonization of African countries and their emergence as independent nations — is especially difficult. Part of the reason of course lies with legacy. In the thrall of racism, either conscious or unconscious, historians prior to the early 1960s often imposes blatant biases and prejudices on African experience. Though not as flagrant in their abuses as, say, anthropologists, professional historians were often trapped in a manner of thinking that led them to conclude that Africans lacked their own histories.
If Africans did suffer from a deficit, the deficit was not history, but historical materials of the conventional sort: records, diaries, letters, reports, and the like. Such staples of literate societies were absent for various reasons in the sub-Saharan. And the records which did exist often were generated by colonizers and adventurers, interlopers with an agenda that rarely included fairness to Africans — or the impulse to document their authentic voices.
A new generation of historians of Africa are building into their scholarship innovative and creative ways of giving voice to the African voiceless. One of the most spectacular examples of such scholarship is the new book, Abina and the Important Men, by historian Trevor Getz, of San Francisco State University.
Drawing extensively on the trial transcript of a Ghanaian woman illegally enslaved in the 1870s by another Ghanaian, Getz creates a deeply informed and revelatory work of narrative history and nuanced interpretation. Treating his book as a mosaic of independent elements, he even enlists the help of a talented graphic artist to create a beautifully-drawn 75-page “graphic history” that seems ideal for pre-university students. When the graphic story is paired with the actual trial transcript, which Getz found in Ghana, and with lucid essays by Getz on the historical context of the trial and a “reading guide” that explores the “authenticity” of his own narrative, Abina and the Important Men presents a stunning multi-faceted experience of an African past that remains so foggy as to appear to be irretrievably lost. While prominent gaps in the evidence and his narrative and analysis remain, Getz tries to compensate in an unusually interesting ways. His big-hearted and perceptive “letter to the reader,” which opens Abina and the Important Men is worth quoting at length — for its insights into how creative scholars are trying to address a crisis of relevance, not only of African history but for the field of history in general:
“Abina and the Important Men is one of a number of projects that seeks to find a middle ground between scholarly and popular histories of regular people. [My book] is not a work of historical fiction, but instead a history because it aims for accuracy and authenticity even while recognizing that all historical works are at some level speculative and subjective. It is neither completely celebratory not holly critical; instead it attempts to show how these two impulses can be linked together…. [R]ather than seeking to be the final authorities on this story, we invite the reader to … see this work as a conversation we are having with Abina Mansah.”
Bringing African voices of the past, into the present, is a project of great significance. May Abina and the Important Men inspire more multi-dimensional studies of this sort.
The French military intervention in Mali, while long overdue, nevertheless exposes the complications and challenges of reclaiming northern Mali from the fusion of Islamicists and ethnic rebels who have long sought some greater autonomy over the largely barren and deserted region of the Sahara. Whatever sense Westerners make out of the emerging Malian quagmire, the stubborn fact remains that rebuilding the shattered Malian “state” remains elusive. There is no roadmap for putting Mali back together again, neatly, even if the toxic brew of funadmentalism and aggrieved sub-national forces can be contained. The Obama administration wisely waited out the French, who initially sought to keep hands-off the Malian crisis. And now that the French have intervened militarily, their initial reserve becomes more understandable, because the recent fighting makes clear that the usual approach of the French – to subdue an African frebellion or restore a government to national power – with a few hundred troops and vastly superior technologies – may not work in Mali. The alternative is ghastly: a period of months or longer of close fighting between a rogue’s gallery of Islamicists and French forces backed by other African armies. The potential blowback on French soil in the form of terror acts is disturbing; even more disturbing, though, is the high possibility of a hollow victory over the Islamicists. Even if the French win on the battlefield, they face the difficult task of putting the pieces of the diminished and dysfunctional Malian nation-state. Not a task for a committee, or the faint of heart.
Worldwide, there’s a growing concensus that “outsiders” (useful, for lack of a better term to describe non-residents of the sub-Saharan) ought to view Africa with a new set of spectacles. Outdated pre-conceptions still dominate outisders perceptions of what ails Africa, and how the “patient” might best be “cured.” But increasingly, the dangerous stereotypes of the past – mental maps and meta-narratives that influenced all manner of wrong-headed understandings of what’s happening in the sub-Saharan – are giving way to new approaches that begin with asking better questions about Africa’s present and future. Probably the clearest expression of the need for looking afresh at a tired subject is this year’s most important book on Africa by a professional Africanist, the eminent observer of the region’s politics, Stephen Ellis.
An advisor to the Dutch government on assistance to Africa, and a professor of African studies at Leiden university in the Netherlands, Ellis has long been among the shrewdest observers of Africa. In his concise and clear book, Season of the Rains: Africa in the World, Ellis strikes a balanced position between the new optimism about Africa’s future economic and social dynamism and the persistent frustrations over violent conflict, inequality and governmental under-performance.
Too many powerful actors on the world stage continue to insist that the shortcomings in what can rightly be called “the African renaissance” must inevitably undermine, if not erase, the enormous gains experienced by all levels of African society since the start of a new century a dozen years ago. Rather than embrace new ways of thinking, these veteran “Africa hands” act as if they can replay the tired, outmoded arguments for the inevitability of African failure. The continent is too diverse, and the recent examples of African achievement are too plentiful, for people seriously concerned with world affairs to fall prey to the conceptual errors of the past. Having cried wolf too many times about Africa in the past, “the best and brightest” of the international community would seem to have exhausted their franchise to consign Africa to the domain of permanent disappointments, perpetual “scars on the conscience of humanity,” to paraphrase Tony Blair’s unfortunate description of the region not very many years ago.
Refreshingly, a new conventional wisdom about is Africa is emerging and Professor Ellis is among the leaders in this movement to press the restart button on the image of Africa in the world. For those unaware of this movement, Season of the Rains is an excellent place to begin. This emerging view, which I among others have trumpeted since the early 2000s and which is finally gaining serious traction among popular thinkers on international relations, (see my own collection, Hotel Africa, which explores the revolution in thinking about Africa in the world) amounts to a new declaration of independence, both for political-economic thinking about Africa as a whole and for individual Africans in the world. The existential acceptance of African capability for self-governance, however imperfect, tracks the growing realization that so-called “developed nations” are themselves afflicted by serious problems, across a range of domains, that call into question legacy notions of superiority.
Ellis smartly concludes his clear, valuable book with what amounts to a new creed for understanding African affairs “We need to consider Africa’s recent history in ways that have more power to explain things than either the Africa-as-victim theory or the Africa-as-imcompetent one, with their sub-variants. Only then are we equipped to understand Africa’s place in a fast-changing world and to read accurately the omens concerning what more happen in the forseeable future.”
There are plenty of crises around the sub-Saharan as 2012 comes to a close. The quagmire in Mali, where governance has imploded and a venerable nation-state has been cut into two pieces. In Eastern Congo, strife continues, and the international community remains lost at this crucial borderland between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Nigeria seems ever close to either a civil war or the complete collapse of order. When even the mother of the country’s famous finance minister is kidnapped, what is left to surprise Nigerians?
Lost amid the urgent crises around the sub-Saharan is a prosaic problem of enormous consequences: everyday corruption of the civil service. The task of reforming Africa’s government bureaucracies – and halting the large-scale waste and theft of precious resources – is not for the faint-hearted. Past efforts at reform, reviewed above, failed because they were too timid. While there are no quick fixes for African bureaucracies, past experience ought to guide present approaches. A lack of boldness in approaching the failures of African civil servants will be rewarded – by more failures. The last thing that’s needed are more timid, half-way measures of the sort that long have defined “reform” agendas. These reforms are merely shams, perpetrated by either the weak-hearted or the negligent. The words of Barbara Nunberg, an expert on African bureaucracies at The World Bank, written nearly a dozen years ago, bears pondering: “Meaningful change is going to require more forceful reforms.
Just how forceful? Forceful enough to blow up the current system. African bureaucracies cannot be reformed piece-meal means; rather the roots of waste inefficiency and corruption among government workers must be attacked. African civil servants should be fired wholesale, without costly severance packages, on the grounds that government employees have benefited too long from illegal and immoral actions. To pay severance or damages to these dismissed workers would be akin to compensating a burglar for lost income because they can no longer rob your home after the installation tighter security measures. To be sure, the thief no longer has a livelihood at your expense, but then who’s fault is that?
A complete demolition of entire African ministries, and their employees, is the only way to liberate government from the tyranny of its civil servants. And tyranny is not too strong a description here. To understand the destructive self-serving mentality of African bureaucrats, Rene Dumont’s masterful phrase, “the bourgeoisie of civil service,” must be embraced. Whereas Marx predicted a dictatorship of the masses, African nations ended up with a dictatorship of the civil servant.
Dismantling this dictatorship through mass firings would not be as difficult to execute as defenders of the status quo imagine. Civil servants in Africa are deeply unpopular with most ordinary people. Often, bureaucrats come disproportionately from a favored tribe, or they are part of a powerful patronage network of a long-disgraced politician. Bureaucrats are among the wealthiest people in most African countries. Their children go the best schools and are often the most likely to leave their homeland for greener pastures in the U.S. and Europe. Rather than a revolt of the citizenry, massive firings of African civil servants would most likely lead to celebrations.
Effective and honest civil servants would welcome the mass firings because they would be rehired, quickly and at higher wages. But they would not have guaranteed employment ever again but rather their tenure would henceforth be tied to results and responsibility. Going forward, dishonesty would be met with severe actions. Summary dismissal should be the first option for teachers, policeman and nurses who importune the public for bribes.
The public service commissions in Africa countries, which today merely rubber stamp and tolerate fraud by civil servants, would become true arbiters or merit and normative behavior. Currently, these commissions are comprised themselves of civil servants and governed by a board of political appointees. That’s why they are toothless and even abet wrong-doing by public employees. To help support the revolution in public services that’s needed in Africa, these public services commissions would have among their board members experienced international bureaucrats. Foreign technical experts would also work in these public service commissions, turning them into effective agencies for both hiring and monitoring civil servants.
The task of managing the invigorated ranks of African civil servants would be made easier by the widespread privatization of public services. A whole range of government services in most of African countries – from hospitals to water-delivery to electricity to schools – have functioned woefully because they’ve run and managed by government bureaucrats whose only aim is self-enrichment. These services, in an orderly manner, should be turned over to private enterprises who will value skills and deliver services more productively. Ambitious and talented civil servants, who seek much higher compensation, can transition to these private agencies where employee rewards and responsibilities will be well matched.
Finally, the wave of government de-centralization sweeping across Africa must be halted and reversed. De-centralization of government services, while appealing in theory, is hugely costly and creates new opportunities for corruption among civil servants who see their posts as means to achieve an elite position in society. More small governmental units mean more civil-servant “chiefs,” who in turn require the sorts of costly emoluments that erode government budgets and undermine public-spiritedness. Reversing de-centralization could save hundred of millions in government spending in most of African countries. Andrew Mwenda, a perceptive Ugandan journalist, advocates dismantling his country’s new districts and downsizing central government administration. He estimates that Uganda could save $300 million “right now” by these measures.
The savings to governments across Africa — of mass firings of civil servants, of zero-tolerance for corruption among public employees, of a sustained shift into privately-run services — could amount to billions of dollars annually. Even more important, better-performing civil servants will raise the impact of the billions of dollars of foreign aid pouring into Africa.
These are the practical reasons to support a transformation in African public employment. But there are moral reasons as well. To do nothing while civil servants pillage the revenues of African governments and prey relentlessly on impoverished citizens is a travesty. The daily corruption of African bureaucrats merits the kind of outrage produced by international observers for crimes against humanity in Africa. For every day, in most African countries, civil servants committing an institutionalized robbery that goes unpunished by Africans themselves and uncommented on by foreign experts and donors. For too long the corruption of African civil servants has been viewed as a cost of doing business. Now is the time to treat these pillages as a moral travesty and a major barrier to African development. That African governments are hiring new legions of bureaucrats, even before they have purged themselves of the cancer of corruption, suggests strongly that the world will witness even greater levels of waste in the years ahead. The answer is not to decimate African bureaucracies so that effective services cannot be delivered. The answer is to deliver services in a new way and impose on new and remaining bureaucrats a stringent set of expectations for both productivity and personal behavior. Bringing about such a revolution in African government is of course setting a very high bar and is perhaps an impossible quest. But it does more harm than good for African citizens and their foreign supporters to pretend that the corrupt and ill-meaning civil servants of today can ever be “reformed” into an effective, public-spirited cadre through timid measures. At a time when African governments are on a hiring spree, friends of Africa must ask for more than business as usual.
NOTE: excerpted from chapter 17, “Everyday corruption in Uganda,” from Hotel Africa: the politics of escape (2012)
The excellent world-affairs blog, Wronging Rights, highlights the virtues of Hotel Africa, my new collection of essays on politics and development in 21st-century Africa. Observes editor Kate Cronin-Furman:
“I found food for thought in many of the essays in Hotel Africa, but one called “In Malawi, Charity Is Not Enough” stayed with me. In it, Zachary, interviewing a farming family struggling to survive amidst a drought and an AIDS epidemic, begins to cry, and then just as quickly begins to question the validity of his own emotional response. “What’s wrong with me?” he asks, before launching into a list of his hardened-foreign-correspondent-in-depressing-lands bona fides. The episode highlights the difficulty of situating one’s own emotions in the context of a narrative (or advocacy) about other people’s pain. This issue is frequently raised in criticism of Western journalism on Africa, and motivated much of the backlash to the Kony 2012 video, which focused on the white filmmakers’ discovery of African suffering. Zachary, clearly both embarrassed and sensitive to the risks of making his reaction the center of the story, nevertheless owns his feelings, but uses the moment to discuss the perverse effects of emotion-driven charity and to call for principled, sustained engagement with sub-Saharan Africa.”
For a quaint, prosaic vision of the national elections underway in Ghana, see Elizabeth Ohene’s account of campaigning in the former British colony. All orderly: pomp and ceremony, full of song. A member of the opposition party and a former journalist, Ohene’s gracious writing presents an election to be determined by the quality of the presidential candidates’s T-shirts. Rather drolly, Ohene recounts her own losing campaign some years ago, and how she still spies some folks wearing her campaign clothes.
If only Ghana’s election was unfolding with this kind vacuous Victorian dignity. Actually, the campaign pits the loser of the last election against the inheritor of the presidency through the death of then-president Atta Mills earlier this year. The Mills administration seemed poised to set some kind for looting the government treasury, so the president’s death provided a timely excuse for the ruling party. Mills’s successor, the urbane and intelligent John Mahama, should prove more difficult to defeat from the opposition NPP party whose stronghold is in the traditional Ashanti cocoa-growing region around the inland Kumasi empire.
The first round of election is likely only to be prelude: the winner needs a 50 percent majority and given the number of minor candidates, a majority isn’t likely either for Mahama or his desultory NPP opponent. In the run-off, Ghana’s patient public, which has perhaps the greatest commitment to representative democracy of any African country, will get a closer look at the actual policy and programatic differences between the two political factions that have run Ghana since the exit of Jerry Rawlings from electoral politics a dozen years ago. Until the death of Mills, Rawlings and his salubrious wife seemed likely to undermine Mills’s candidacy. Death denied Rawlings and company this chance, and Mahama, of whom I am fond, has managed to free himself of the spectral Rawlings presence.
Whomever wins the election — Mahama or Nana Akufo-Addo — faces a challenging task to improve the economic nd social performance of one of Africa’s development stars. Despite having been granted middle-income status by the World Bank during the Mills presidency, and despite being serenaded by the Obama administration for its peaceful, law-abiding citizenry, Ghana is a chronic under-achiever and the government’s miserable public finances and economic-growth strategies underscore the deep malaise that engulfs Ghana’s governing elites.
This month’s elections show no signs of Ghana moving past its penchant celebrating symbolism while ignoring substance. In the end, elections, no matter how well rendered, are about something. In Ghana, the means of electoral politics trumps the ends. That must change for Ghana, one of the world’s truly great nations, to realize its vast, and yet vastly disregarded, potential.