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Dictatorships too have not helped Africa to develop

By Kennedy Opalo

What is good for the goose ought to be good for the gander or so you would think. In an era when the rise of China and India is forcing the question what the relationship wealth creation has to the type of government; whether democratic or authoritarian Africa stands out like the ugly duckling.

What you may ask is the difference between Chile under Pinochet and Zaire under Mobutu.  What sets apart Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore and Theodore Obiang Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea? Or put it differently why did Africa’s experience of your dictator like Idi Amin not lead to the economic miracles today represented by the reassessment of China’s strong arm communists?

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world in which standards of living – measured by per capita GDP – have stayed the same or declined in the last half-century. The fact that out of the 40 worst performing countries – in terms of the UN human development indicators – only two are non-African says it all. The whole region (excluding South Africa), with a population of 787 million, has a nominal gross economic output of US $678.4 billion. This is $255.6 billion less than South Korea’s GDP, a country of 50 million people that is often cited as having had relatively the same per capita income, in the early 1960s as African states like Kenya and Ghana.

Throughout the region, from Senegal, Somalia, Sudan to South Africa, socio-economic stagnation and misrule predominate. The only success story is Botswana, a middle-income country of less than 2 million people. But even life expectancy in Botswana is 55 years and over a quarter of its adult population has HIV. That is Africa’s success story.

Even by the (rather condescendingly) so-called “African standards”, Africa is doing very badly. The rubric for those looking to lift Africa by its bootstraps today is to propose democratic and accountable government. But even if Kenya today can transform into Denmark or Norway tomorrow- it does not explain why autocratic governments elsewhere produced economic miracles like in China while the Idi Amin’s of yesteryear performed so poorly. A half-century or more of brutal autocratic leadership on the continent has produced no Chiles, Vietnams or Singapores. Something about Africa’s big men dictators set them apart. The puzzle appears to be in the particular variety of the African dictatorship.

They tend to be arbitrary with intellectually and ideologically vacuous governments. China’s 12th five-year plan contrasts sharply against Nigeria’s perennial underperformance. Independence in the 1960s brought little else beside coups, gross economic mismanagement, declining standards of living, political ethnicity and general mediocrity while other newly independent states in other regions of the world sped towards sustained socio-economic development. That difference is what, to a big extent, sets apart Lee Kwan Yew from Yoweri Museveni.

Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, African autocrats have failed to achieve progress with rule by law, let alone rule of law. Given its level of development at independence, autocratic rule ought to have helped Africa implement the painful policies – such as sacrificing consumption for investment, long-term planning, rationalised land redistribution, etc – that may not necessary be possible under its (pseudo or inchoate) democracies today. The last half-century in Africa has therefore been one of wasted dictatorships.

As a young East African in the United States, I am constantly confronted with the uncomfortable question of; why Africa? The question becomes particularly touchy if raised in the presence of my East and South Asian friends who take pride in their respective nations’ gargantuan achievements on the economic front. Instead of discussing high speed rails, turbo-charged economic growth rates and potential for massive reverse brain-drain, the discourse on my home continent is often clouded by stories of famine, illiteracy, economic stagnation, disease, and misrule etc. My attempts to answer the “why Africa?” question have generated a number of case-contingent answers, but the one answer that invariably comes up in all the cases is bad leadership.

Writing in 1983, Chinua Achebe, the celebrated Nigerian writer, aptly noted that “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”  This conclusion is not exclusive to Nigeria. Africa’s biggest tragedy has been its inability to produce leaders with the stuff that drives history. Many of its leaders opted to be audiences or mere pawns in the great game of history. Instead of a rational and purposeful approach to government, African leaders resorted to running their states like personal enterprises. The buck stops at the desks of African leaders. Casting political correctness aside for a moment, the fact that autocrats elsewhere have completely outperformed their African counterparts on the development front is hard to miss.

Serious attempts at ideological, intellectual and policy coherence and rule by law have characterised most non-African dictatorships. Chile under Pinochet had the Chicago boys. The East Asian autocrats relied on Confucian administrative discipline. African autocracies on the other hand remained mired in a culture of arbitrary rule and anti-intellectualism that stifled both debate and rational policymaking. Not having spent much time in a classroom themselves, these autocrats did not see the need to provide any intellectual or ideological justification for their (mis)rule. To this end they jailed, exiled or killed most of their countries’ intellectuals. This created a devastating deficit.

Unconstrained by any rationale but raw power- arbitrary rule and crass tribalism has meant the appointment of brothers, sisters, wives and other relatives to key security, cabinet and parastatal positions without much consideration for accountability or qualification. The resulting incompetence of the domestic leadership class has resulted in a collective crisis of confidence leading many governments to “outsource” their plans from “policy experts” brought in by donors they now relied on. Now many Western looking African dictators spends their time with “development experts” while skipping cabinet meetings that run the business of government for months at a time. In the meantime – the power game they play marginalises their own intellectuals who have the most incentive to end the reputation of this continent as the sick man of the world.

As India and China become more assertive on the global stage, African incompetence and general failure stand out even more. It’s time for Africans including those living in its autocratic quarters to eschew their assumptions (including the notion that only democracies deliver) in their attempts at forging a brighter future. A successful government is a successful government no matter how you characterise the regime. Let’s get on with the programme.

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Kennedy Opalo is a PhD student of Political Science at Stanford University, USA.

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