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A letter to Andrew Mwenda and Obbo

By Christine Mungai

Weighing in on Africa’s troubles with democracy and prosperity

I once heard a saying that if elders are having a serious meeting and a little boy wanders too close by, the old men will chase him away faster than his legs can carry him.

But if a little girl tries to gate crash the meeting, the old men will probably smile and let her sit at their feet, and carry on like nothing has happened.

The implication is that boys should not know the secrets of leadership before their time comes; they have to be tried and tested, and earn it.

But because in traditional societies women were not going to be in the top positions of leadership, what harm could there be in letting a sweet little girl play with her skipping rope as you are discussing battle strategies, clan geopolitics, and what not?

Never mind the remarkable capacity of the female mind to remember things – in detail.

Two Old Men of the Clan will therefore forgive me as I attempt to gate crash their serious discussion.

Andrew Mwenda on May 17, writing in The Independent, wondered why elections in a country like India (and this could include any other developing country) tended to favour rogues, thieves and rapists getting into positions of power, while in countries like Norway and Sweden, the result of elections was dedicated public servants who consistently put the public good before their personal gain.


He argued that it was a result of culture – the values, norms and traditions of leaders, and the conscience of elites, which resulted in good or bad leaders. In countries where checks and balances work, Mwenda says, they are a result of accountability, not the source of it.

But his old friend Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote a reply to Mwenda in which he argued that the reason why some countries end up with an honest, dedicated system that serves the public good, and others have to contend with corrupt, evil despots is because of the conditions that create the culture Mwenda was talking about.

Obbo says that the single ingredient that makes the difference is having to face an existential crisis that threatens your survival; without adversity, most nations just muddle along.

The European nations that are better governed have less water, fewer natural resources and endure more extreme weather than the warmer ones with plenty e.g. Greece and Italy.

Adversity here could also be a wider social or economic challenge that threatens a country’s very survival, and gives a nation something to prove – Chiang Kai-Shek’s Taiwan, for example, had to prove that the mainland Chinese communists were hopeless, and so gave them the impetus to make their model work.

Personally, I am conflicted about the geographical/ environmental determinism theory, popularised by Paul Krugman, Jared Diamond, and others.

On one hand, the rational scientist in me is convinced by the solid evidence.

Africa as a continent, for example, seems to have the perfect storm of factors that result in low economic growth conditions – the hot, wet tropical climate makes the soil less fertile by the leaching of nutrients; plants lose much water by transpiration so food crops do not have as much nutrient density as temperate crops, and there is no winter to kill off infectious pathogens, and so deadly diseases ravage people all year round.

It means that population densities in Africa have historically been low, without the chance for increased levels of specialisation, higher agricultural productivity, and greater technological change that can spur economic growth.

On the other hand, I balk at the thought that Africa’s fate is written in stone (or in the clouds), simply because we have warm weather, lots of rain and many insects. That implies an innate lack of human agency or the ability to shape and control our environment.

Obbo argues that Africa has not had enough adversity. To my mind, the harsh environmental conditions in northern Europe were simply different in character, but not in magnitude. As outlined above, Africa has had, and continues to have plenty of adversity. And Africans have just as much ingenuity and resilience than any one else in the world, if not more.

But my own sense is not that we have not had enough challenges to confront, it is they are so deep and relentless that we have normalised them – and so the character of the institutions we build are not to triumph, but to merely survive.

Normalisation of adversity, of tragedy, and of the absurd is Africa’s real problem. Still, I can understand it as a coping and survival mechanism. If you constantly do not have enough money to buy food, medicine and school fees, tomorrow is best left to itself – chances are, it will be just as hard as today, and you waste precious energy today worrying about the future.

In other words, although adversity, or the existential crisis, is a key ingredient of success –as exemplified by countries like Taiwan, Singapore and even China – it doesn’t necessarily lead to success, in and of itself.

There’s no guarantee that something beautiful comes out at the end of a refiner’s fire, it could just as easily result in a pile of ash.

What Africa needs is leaders who can see the difference, so that when presented with a crisis, they are able to triumph and not normalise. And my own sense is that the big one coming is an environmental collapse.

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Christine Mungai is a senior reporter of the Mail & Guardian Africa; a digital pan-African news publication.

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