THE LAST WORD: How Africa’s obsession with ‘governance’ issues is too much ado over little or nothing
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Let me articulate a heresy: the argument that Africa’s failure to prosper economically is fundamentally due to “governance” i.e. that our leaders are greedy, selfish, corrupt, dictatorial and power hungry is baloney. These ills may be morally repugnant but they do not automatically impede economic development.
Today’s rich countries had leaders with similar characteristics and in spite of them (and sometimes partly because of them), their nations transformed from poor agricultural societies to modern industrial nations.
The United States industrialised alongside genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of black people, which became convict leasing; a system of conscripting labour of prisoners that was actually worse than slavery. During its most intense phase of industrial transformation (1865 to 1900) America did not allow its women and black population to vote. Corruption was rampant, in fact legal. Votes were bought and sold on the open market. The U.S. overtook Great Britain as the world’s largest economy in 1890.
Yet during that period, U.S. politicians were in the pockets of big money cats and political parties auctioned government jobs to their financiers (like they still do today). It had no competitive bidding. During this phase of its history, the U.S. never recruited a single civil servant through an open competitive exam. Indeed, there was no requirement for professional/technical competence or qualifications for a job in the civil service until the early 1900s.
America was not alone. European powers industrialised in the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries against the backdrop of officially sanctioned corruption called prebendalism, cruel labour practices (read Karl Marx’s critique of early capitalism), and voting restricted to a few adult males with property. Many argue that it was possible to undergo industrial transformation in those days with such ills but today things have changed; that today’s realities demand honest government that is liberal-democratic with checks and balances.
This is sentimental hogwash. The most rapidly industrialising countries of today – China and Vietnam – are saddled with high levels of corruption. Both are ruled by single party dictatorships and no organised forces in civil society hold them to account. China’s human rights record is appalling. These factors may be morally repugnant but they have not stopped China from rapid economic progress.
Just next door to Africa are the gulf states of the Arabian Peninsula. Dubai is the most rapidly transforming mini-state with oil revenues only contributing 4% of its budget. It has no elections, no elected parliament or free press and no political parties or any form of competition for power. Instead it is ruled by a traditional monarchy with absolute authority and no term or age limits.
There is hardly a distinction between the private property of the ruling emir and the public property of the state of Dubai.