By Andrew M. Mwenda
Debunking the myths that mass media generally perpetuate about Africa and Africans
Most Western journalists covering Africa tend to purvey prejudice rather than convey accurate information. Even when the journalist knows a specific story is an oversimplification and/or misrepresentation of a more nuanced reality, they still retreat to prejudice to pander to their audiences.
However, there are very few journalists who have defied this logic and tried to present a more nuanced picture of Africa and Africans. One of these has been Fareed Zakaria of CNN and Time Magazine. When he is not pandering to the interests of the dominant forces in American politics, he can be insightful and thoughtful.
He has previously demonstrated an ability to tell a more nuanced story on Africa that reflects our complex reality. I was therefore shocked when he retreated to prejudice in last week’s GPS program. He stated: “Africa’s leaders are locked in a marathon to see who can reign longest. The leaders of Equatorial Guinea and Angola have been in power for 34 years.
Zimbabwe and Cameroon have had the same men in charge for 33 and 30 years respectively. These and a number of other African states are nominal democracies, but they are essentially run by dictators. Elections, if they’re held at all, tend to be a sham, pockmarked by intimidation, fraud, and violence.”
Africa is a continent of 55 nations. Of these, nine have ruled for more than 20 years, eleven have ruled for more than 15 years. I use 15 because up until 2002 a French president with two terms can do 14 years. And given our constant reference to Western notions, this makes 15 years reasonable. This means that 44 presidents and prime ministers have ruled for less than 15 years.
How are the eleven long-serving leaders representative of Africa? An accurate presentation would have been like: “Although most of Africa has moved to regular change of government through multi party electoral competition and/or term limits, a few countries have remained stuck with long serving leaders.”
Indeed, in 1975, only two of Africa’s presidents had been chosen through an election where they faced a rival backed by an opposition party. In 2013, 50 African leaders had been elected through competitive multi party elections. I admit, as Zakaria says, that some of these elections are not free and fair.
But that is understandable. You cannot open up today and have a Norwegian democracy tomorrow. Therefore we cannot measure democracy by an absolute figure but only relatively i.e. by examining the progress in political participation and contestation over the years since opening up political space.
Secondly, let me assume, just for argument’s sake that the longevity of a leader causes economic stagnation. According to IMF, of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies over the last decade (2003-2013), seven are from Africa. Of these, four had/have been ruled by one President for more than 20 years and only two for less than 10 years: Libya (42), Equatorial Guinea (34), Angola (34), Ethiopia (22), Rwanda (13), Nigeria (3) and Mozambique (8).
From this sample, it seems longevity is good for growth although that is not my point. One could say the fastest-growing countries are oil rich (Libya, Angola and Equatorial Guinea) and therefore enjoying high oil prices. But how about Rwanda and Ethiopia that don’t have rich natural resources and their leaders who engineered this growth have/had been in power for more than ten years?
Nigeria too has oil, but Mozambique, which has discovered gas, was not enjoying a resource boom. And with the exception of Ethiopia and Rwanda, all the fastest growing Africa economies over the last decade are very corrupt.
Historically, all the leaders who transformed Asian economies tended to rule for decades. Chiang Kai Shek in China/Taiwan (50 years), Suharto in Indonesia (32 years), Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore (30 years), Mahthir Mohammed in Malaysia (22), Park Chung Hee in South Korea (17 years). Rwandans may take note of these facts.
In all these cases, these leaders ruled with an iron fist and presided over high levels of corruption (except for Singapore). Therefore, there is little correlation between longevity and misrule. In Africa, we need to investigate the specific factors that made autocracy and corruption harmful to growth and why today we are seeing opposite trends.
It is possible that Africa’s current growth is a result of many interacting factors – improved policies and institutions (because we have learnt from the experience of failure in the 1970s, 80s and 90s), China’s demand for our resources etc. But most critically, I think an increasingly educated and sophisticated population provides a bigger slice of the answer. When I joined university in 1993 (20 years ago), total university enrolment of Ugandans in the country and abroad was less than 8,000 students.
Today, it is more than 100,000. Across Africa, we are seeing this revolution. We have accumulated a critical mass of human capital. At independence, DR Congo had 15 university graduates, Tanzania nine, Chad, CAR, Niger Rwanda and Burundi none.
Zakaria does not know this. So he claims that: “For decades, NGO’s and Western countries have tied aid money and trade to promises for greater transparency among Africa’s countries. But China has upended the system. Beijing is known to give aid and sign trade deals with no strings attached. Instead, its priority is to extract commodities at the best possible price. And that, in turn, has led to the commodities boom, which has fuelled growth in Africa.”
This sounds like London, Paris and Washington propaganda to make the West feel/look good and morally superior. Yet throughout its post-independence history, the worst and longest serving dictators in Africa – Mobutu in Zaire, Samuel Doe in Liberia, Bokasa in CAR, Siad Barre in Somalia, Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moi in Kenya, Omar Bongo in Gabon, Eyadema in Togo, Biya in Cameroun, Nguema in Equatorial Guinea, apartheid in South Africa, Habyarimana in Rwanda – in fact every thug I can think of has been propped and supported by the West, not China.
Indeed, Western powers have fought every nationalist who dared to defend Africa’s interests. Nelson Mandela was labeled a terrorist, Kwame Nkrumah, Milton Obote, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabra, Murtala Mohamed – every hero of the African people has been demonized by Western governments, their media and academia, fought and many were overthrown.
That is why Africa needs to tell her own story.