Getting Our Priorities Right:
Pan-continental government is not a substitute for reform.
By By Ike Nnedu
For the Confluence Reform Movement
It is self-evident that only the people of Africa can transform Africa. The continent is changing every day, and improving in many areas, but substantive democracy based on informed decision-making and substantive citizen democracy is vital to take Africa's peoples to the next level in our collective development. While there is no "perfect" democracy, Western Europe, Japan and North America would remain wealthy regardless of which politician X or Y occupied the prime office. In contrast, Africa's peoples must raise the quality of decision-making to meet our challenges. If the continent's business, political and intellectual elite continue to underachieve and continue to be free of competition from political and economic entrepreneurs, we the people will continue to face unnecessary roadblocks to unlocking the economic potential of our continent.
Almost all of Africa is officially democratic, but if victory for an all-encompassing party is not guaranteed (South Africa, Tanzania) then elections are rigged (Nigeria, Egypt). Where the vote matters, the issues at stake are either pointless (ethnic brokering in Kenya) or simplistic, concepts that are popular but nevertheless unrelated to the hard task of managing a republic after the polls (colonialism vs. independence in the 1960s; "multi-party" vs. "one-party" in the 1990s). In the end, politicians need only serve the interests of a small clique (reflected in policymaking that yields dividends for the few, but fails to deliver public goods to the many), or indefinitely milk an emotional subject to remain in office long enough for absolute power to corrupt absolutely.
Substantive democracy as a tool to empower the people would be useless without an overhaul of knowledge generation. Bad information promotes individual and collective bad decision-making; the violence of ethnic separatists and religious extremists is difficult to stop because (whether we admit it or not) substantial numbers of ordinary people blame their socio-economic woes on other ethnicities and believe anyone outside of their religion to be an enemy of the Almighty. It is next to impossible to rally a populace behind the banner of substantive reform, because belief systems create fatalistic citizens who tolerate the intolerable, and treat avoidable negatives as though they were inevitable, unstoppable or (worse) desirable. Overhauling knowledge generation is the most vital of reforms; continuing failure to face this challenge leads to disgraces like the 2007 Nigerian elections. As citizens, we are all responsible for creating dysfunctional societies, and the 2007 Nigerian poll was a natural and organic by-product of Nigerian society as it is today.
Poor leadership and bad knowledge generation are behind the illusion that African developmental challenges are exotic and difficult to resolve, an illusion exploited by paternalistic outsiders who talk about us as if we were infantile and incapable of the simplest tasks of self-government. The default cry of Africa's political, intellectual and business elite is to assert that when faced with the complexity of achieving social, economic and political transformation is to call for a continental government to rule all of Africa, a so-called "United States of Africa". It is the religion of the African intelligentsia, the rainbow-over-the-horizon promise of the politicians.
It is also an excuse to refuse to think or act. It is a tool for the political, business and intellectual elite to justify their inaction on the things that really matter. Which is more useful to Africa, a Libyan president who exhorts us all to pan-Africanism, or a Libyan president who does not wreck Chad, back Idi Amin, and aid the murderous militia of NPFL and RUF? In different ways, large and small, the rest of the elite has had every chance to do the things that would move us forward, but either omit (decline to do those things) or commit (do harmful things instead). Presented with their underachievement, they try to distract us with talk of continental government. I fear they spend so much time looking "up" at their daydream, to avoid looking "down" and "around" at the myriad issues festering around them.
For decades Nigerians have yearned for an effective, crime-fighting police force. Our elite prefer to use the police to crush democratic dissent and rig elections. Their attitude is not caused by a lack of continental government, but by a lack of interest in public welfare. Changing the systemic foundation of domestic decision-making would do so much to change Nigeria, but those with the most power to push for change have the least interest in doing so. The politicians and their shady backers rely on the system for their existence. The plutocratic business elite are too busy milking the broken system for profit. Intellectuals and so-called political progressives switch from being critics to being cheerleaders for reasons unrelated to principle (money, high-profile appointments, ethnic affiliation, etc.). A "civil society" movement is growing, but like all things linked to donor money is becoming a thriving industry in its own right, with little effect on (and possibly little interest in) permanently fixing the circumstances that theoretically necessitated its existence.
This is where change is needed; this is what will change Africa. This is where we will generate the decisions that will put us on the fast road to where we need to go. But for nearly fifty years we have all, as Africans, focused our energy instead on dreaming of continental government. This dogma (reminiscent of one-party-state ideology) is the metaphoric "third rail" of African thought, something no one must question else an intellectual lynch mob cast you as an enemy of Africa. Meanwhile countries collapse like houses of cards, and municipalities struggle with the simplest forms of service delivery. It took years, decades of misrule, for Somalia and Liberia to collapse - there was ample time to do something, anything, to turn it around, to avoid crisis.
Why is it okay to say Guinea-Bissau is poor because its market is "too small" when Singapore is rich? Nigeria is supposedly too multi-ethnic and multi-religious, so what is Somalia's excuse? If Africa was doing what it was supposed to do, Guinea-Bissau could access a continental market of 800 million without needing to create and pay for a continental government. If Nigeria was as wealthy as Japan, it would make no difference that Chad and Niger were Sahelian as they would have access to this market, possibly hosting industrial sectors that need vast operating space or that are best kept away from population concentrations for health reasons.
In East Africa, five nations that need donor assistance to meet their tiny national budgets are busy taking on the expenses of a new layer of sub-continental government. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi are committed to having a shared government in the near future.
Kenyan fiscal commitment to support the budget of the evolving East African government will consume scarce public funds that could alternatively be used to add quality to the quantity created by its free education policy. One of the most dynamic economies in Africa remains shackled by corrupt, venal politics. Rather than wake up their sleeping parliament, and trim the size of their national government, the Kenyans will invest scarce shillings in more politicians and bureaucrats (sub-continental and continental) - money that could address infrastructural bottlenecks.
If Rwanda and Burundi were really serious about "union", they would be talking about the two of them merging to become a single country (which they should have done at independence). They should be talking about the cost savings of having one national government instead of two, rather than talking about the additional expense of having four governments where one would do.
The hot-button issue in otherwise peaceful and stable Tanzania is the status of Zanzibar. If there had been four decades of competitive and qualitative political debate, the country by now might have moved toward consolidating the mainland regions and extending federal autonomy to the mainland regions. As it stands, four decades of centralism has given rise to an anti-democratic (and at times violent) struggle over the future of Zanzibar that could have been avoided if the two sides were more comfortable with what is an anomalous federal relationship in a unitary state.
Uganda, the third big East African partner, has been an autocracy since independence; the voices of Obote, Amin and Museveni have displaced the voice of the Ugandan people. They purport to act in the name of the people, but no one can know what the policy leanings of the people are, because they have never had a chance to express their thoughts through politics.
"Downward" transformation to free Kenya's dynamic economy from the shackles of pointless politics, to improve public goods delivery by federalizing Tanzania, and to democratize Uganda are the key priorities for the region, yet more energy is invested in creating unnecessary new jobs for politicians and bureaucrats. At best the East African Federation would be a bigger version of the existing Kenya or the existing Tanzania. At worst, it would replay the calamity of the three-region Nigerian federation of the 1960s (or the calamity of the first East African Community of the same period). The politics of the East African region has not been reformed, so how could anyone rationally expect a different outcome than what pertains currently at the national level? It is testament to the one-party-state mentality of the African elite that "upward" change to create an East African government is more important to them. But this is a continental dilemma not merely an East African affair.
Taking power closer to the people and giving them the information they need to use it wisely is more important today and more effective for future growth than taking it further away from the people to a continental regime as distant as Mars insofar as the ordinary African can influence it. If we can't hold our local/municipal governments to account, how can we hold the "President of Africa" to account? Don't say elections, because if we can't guarantee local elections produce outcomes of value where are we to find this ability to police continental elections? Indeed, we have no democratic oversight over the politicians, technocrats, businessmen, intellectuals and civil society types who are driving the debate about creating (or not) this United States of Africa. If they ever approve the plan, they will construct it as they wish it (protecting their interests) and present it to us as fait accompli. How is this different from the present?
Reform is needed everywhere. South Africa attracts praise, but their presidency is as imperial a position as it is elsewhere in Africa, their parliament would not be missed if it disappeared, and their elections are a formality where anti-apartheid credentials are a substitute for proving to the electorate that one set of policy options is better than the other. And as much power as the ANC controls, it twists arms to secure even more power, to quench even a hint of viable opposition. The identity politics of the DA, ID and Inkatha will be as much a failure as the similar KADU, ZAPU, and UMBC - the governing juggernaut always wins.
It would take courage, effective organization and newer, better information to create a truly competitive democratic space in South Africa, and the same qualities to free Nigeria from the predatory grip of godfathers, plutocrats, warlords, and oligarchs. But these qualities are absent from the true believers in continental government. If they were so serious about changing Africa, there would not be so many crises on the continent because they would have been courageously and successfully defeating the causes of crisis rather than telling everyone there is nothing that can be done because there is no continental government. As it stands, they are merely hopeful that putting a layer of continental government over the mess of national and local government will allow them to bypass the problems they are too scared to confront.
But it won't work. Putting a bad engine in a new chassis does not work. Besides, the same elite who control national politics will control this continental contraption, and once they show up, all the idealists melt away (or start to work for people they were just criticizing a second ago).
What really is so exciting about continental or sub-continental mega-states anyway?
In some mega-states there are national entities that would rather be independent but are held in by sheer force. In others there are disparities between hyper-wealthy regions and dirt-poor regions, a predictable outcome of internal and external dynamics linked in part to being a mega-state. The African Union is unembellished facsimile of the European Union, an idea taken from a continent where geographically and demographically small nations achieved centuries of disproportionate global power without the benefit of a continental government. The United States of America inspires the dreamers of "United State of Africa", but Americans consume a very disproportionate share of global resources due to the same cynical self-advancing decision-making that powered the prior rise of smaller entities like Britain, France, Japan and Germany. In other words, it is not size, but decision-making that propels their growth - decision-making that is not always driven by 'moral' considerations.
African nations have poor trade with each other because we make bad trade policy decisions, and not due to the lack of a continental government. You cannot know your rational foreign interest if you do not know your domestic priorities; our foreign and trade policy is run by the same nexus that has yet to come to terms with our domestic priorities. At W.T.O. meetings, Africa fights for improved conditions for the continent's existing economy, yet the existing economy is tangled in so much distortion, contradiction, irrationality and illogic that no one can say they know what the African economy would look like if it functioned properly. In a different universe, one in which Africa was as it should be, those farmers presently fighting to export cotton to Europe and North America might be investing their energy in a different set of products to serve some aspect of this hypothetical fully-functional African economy. Locking Africa into binding agreements based on the current economy might make it excessively difficult to get out of this rut. We tend to build our economies around what these agreements make possible (from colonial-era "preferential" trading patterns that continued after independence to the AGOA-inspired growth in textiles). We end up with minuscule intra-African trade, inefficient economies that produce/earn little of what we need, and with global trade patterns that chain us to the bottom of the economic barrel. The reason none of this has changed is because the continent's current economic patterns sustain the elite, and they would lack competitive advantage were we to restructure and reform.
Something is broken in Africa, something that has been broken for a long time now, something we need to fix, something our elite are avoiding by misdirecting our attention to the daydream of a single continental government. We will not get to our dream Africa by creating a continental platform for the relentless rent-seeking that hobbles us in our local and national communities. We need to unleash the entrepreneurial energies, political and economic, of the varied peoples of Africa. We cannot continue this way, not if we want to actualize all of our aspirations.