How prejudice has blinded us from seeing the reality of the politics right in front of our eyes
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Recently, a friend sent me a video of former Ghanian president, Jerry Rawlings, telling his experience as a former president to an Italian journalist. He says his wife had an ailment which could not be cured in Ghana and needed foreign medical attention. He had known of the ailment and had saved $20,000 for her treatment. However, to pay the hospital abroad, he needed a foreign bank account, which he did not have. The medical bill turned out to be double his savings. So, he had to go to London to borrow money from a friend ($20,000) to treat his wife in Switzerland.
Rawlings ruled Ghana for close to 20 years. His successor, John Kufuor, believed Rawlings had stolen a lot of money while president and banked it abroad. Therefore, the government refused to provide any help for his wife’s medical bills.
Sadly, like many African elites, Rawlings failed to draw lessons from his experience. In the interview, he quotes someone who said he (Rawlings) was the only African leader without a foreign bank account. This may be flattering to Rawlings but I think they are many African presidents who did not steal money or have bank accounts abroad.
I once watched a video interview of Uganda’s former president, Idi Amin, telling a Western journalist that he had never held a foreign bank account. He said he did not make any money as president and was then living on the charity of the government of Saudi Arabia. Very many former presidents of African countries like Thomas Sankara, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Samora Machel, Mohmed Buhari, etc. left office with no riches at all.
I had a personal experience was with Uganda’s other former president, Milton Obote. I have a video of a UK television journalist claiming that Obote stole $600 million. When President Yoweri Museveni and his acolytes took power, they made this claim, saying before leaving the country in 1985, Obote went to the central bank and withdrew $600 million and fled with it. Given that Uganda’s GDP at the time was about $2.4 billion (after adjusting for the fixed exchange rate of the time and then adjusting to inflation), this would have been 25% of total national output. Uganda did not have such cash.
On my many visits to Obote in Lusaka, I encountered a man who was living in conditions of extreme economic deprivation. His clothes were aged, the state residence the government of Zambia had given him was dilapidated and the furniture broken. In an autobiographical interview he told me how he ran from Uganda and entered Kenyan penniless, the only money his entourage had was $800 belonging to his personal doctor. Obote lived on the charity of friends and well-wishers as the government in Kampala claimed he was rich.
Nearer home, in 2014 and 2015, Monitor and Observer newspapers published stories on how highly indebted our Members of Parliament (MPs) were. One story said over 50% of MPs were not earning any salary as it would be cut at source to pay money lenders. Another 30% of MPs were receiving less than 50% of their wages, the rest going to pay loans. Only 10% of MPs were getting their full salary. I do not think the situation has since changed.
Yet during his speech in Addis Ababa in July 2015, former U.S. president, Barack Obama, gave his characteristic prejudiced view of African leaders. Speaking before an audience of equally prejudiced African elites, who admired him purely for racial reasons, Obama wondered why African leaders don’t like to leave power “when they have made so much money.” The assembled African elites cheered this fellow “black man” in loud admiration.
It is incredible how prejudices can blind people even to the reality before their eyes. There is a widespread assumption among Africa’s elites and their admirers in Western media, academia and diplomacy that our leaders are in the business of politics to enrich themselves. This belief may reflect the circumstances of some political leaders. Yet I am inclined to believe these would be very few. For the most part, there is overwhelming evidence that many leaders in Africa who left office went into financial obscurity.
Secondly, I also think that many of our politicians in government actually use their public offices to divert funds from the state to their individual pockets and those of their allies, which is called corruption. But why do they remain financially constrained and sometimes even in debt in spite of these shenanigans? My first time to come to grips with the answer to his question came, ironically, from a Western Journalist, Michela Wrong.
Although she was later to disgrace herself by writing a propaganda dirty job book on President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, her book on former DRC president, Mobutu Sese Seko, was insightful. The book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, begins with Mobutu as a “powerful African ruler” who rules DRC (then Zaire) as a colossus. But as Wrong weaves the story, one is moved from hostility to pity of this African “strongman.”
Mobutu took a lot of money from the Zaire treasury, Wrong agrees. But it was not for his personal enrichment even though that was the most visible form expressed through his lifestyle of chartering concords, living in luxury mansions, drinking champagne etc. The main purpose was to buy the loyalty of the different powerful ethnic, regional and religious elites through whom he ruled Congo. As the story snakes through the intricacies of Congolese politics, one begins to see Mobutu, not as a predator but as prey for those Congolese elites. Revulsion and hostility turn into pity.
Just like Mobutu, I am sure many of these elites kept their power by distributing favours to those below them – the mechanism cascading downwards in a reciprocal arrangement. They may cream off some share of the “loot” for themselves. But most of it goes to sustain the web of relationships they cultivate that keeps them politically powerful and influential. What we call corruption is therefore a form of political currency; a method through which elites in poor countries are able to build and sustain governing coalitions.
I once thought this system is used because it is efficient in building and sustaining political support. Now I believe it is used largely because it is the only affordable method given the revenue constraints our nations face. I am avoiding moral judgements here and stating the reality of the situation. African intellectuals need to stop regurgitating Western prejudices about Africa. They need to develop insights based on the reality of how political power is organised, distributed, exercised and reproduced in our poor countries.