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The Way Forward for Africa

By Professor Bolaji Akinyemi

I should begin with the known facts around which there is a consensus which also means an incontrovertible area. Africa is in a lot of trouble. It is beset by a myriad of problems which range from the presence of unsustainable states, failed states, corruption, ethnic and religious intolerance, to genocide and military rapaciousness. Whatever can go wrong has gone wrong in Africa. However, there is also consensus that we may be witnessing the emergence of a new post-colonial authoctonous African leadership and political system especially in some countries in Central Africa such as Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, maybe Congo (Kinshasa), maybe Rwanda, to mention a few.

What we should accept, ab initio, is that things are much worse that we think. Things are so bad that the attitude of the international community range from indifference through benign concern to patronising interest. The benign concern manifests itself in conferences such as this which are genuinely concerned with asking the right questions and seeking the right answers in collaboration with the Africans themselves. The indifference manifests itself in attitudes which presume either that no one can do anything about Africa and its problems or that Africans are to blame for their problems and should be left to sort out those problems. The patronising interest manifests itself in the attitudes that Africans are incapable of solving the problems of Africa and that others must assume that responsibility.

Africa's condition is not unique

Before dealing with each one of these attitudes, it will be useful to keep the following in mind: there is nothing unique about Africa so we must not seek solutions that are often portrayed as uniquely African. There are problems that maybe and will be unique to countries at a particular stage of development but that is not the same as claiming that Africa is such a special and unique place where we must reinvent the wheel.

This is not a facile statement. it has consequences for African Heads of State and politicians who fend off international concern by claiming that the international community simply does not understand the peculiarities of Africa. But it also has the consequences for their critics, both domestic and international, some of whom also advocate polices predicated on the uniqueness of Africa.

Let me illustrate: a lot is still made of the fact that frontiers in Africa are artificial-drawn by non-Africans, with little knowledge of Africa and cutting across normal ethnic and national lines. (I use the word "national" to signify groups which under normal circumstances would be qualified to stated of their own.) I know that some people will argue that the distinction between ethnic (what in the pre-politically correct period used to be called tribal) and national should only be of interest to anthropologists, but political misconceptions often follow a failure to make the distinction between ethnic and nation. As an aside, would we better understand the Rwanda and Burundi situations if we were to regard Hutu and Tutsis as two ethnic members of the same unnamed nation? I digress. Back to my main point: The fact of the artificiality of African frontiers has led some analysts, African and non-African, into criticising the Organisation of African Unity for legitimising those frontiers. Some analysts have even gone further to recommend the redrawing of African boundaries in an attempt to create ethno-geneous states in Africa. For example, an American-based African scholar with a well deserved reputation for political philosophy, warmly applauded the developments in Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern Zaire as perhaps a desirable step in creating a Republic of Tutsiland which will be an ethnogenous state. Fortunately, President Laurent Kabila and his alliance had and have less esoteric intentions.

Artificial boundaries

To sustain this line of thought, one has to accept three fallacies. Firstly, that artificial boundaries are unique to Africa. But they are not. Asia, Europe, Latin America have a proliferation of artificial boundaries. In fact boundaries in Central and Eastern Europe are not only just as artificial but are in fact younger than African boundaries. Secondly, the OAU's adoption of colonial boundaries has spared Africa over 400 potential boundary wars-since each of the over fifty African states has an average of four boundaries-whereas the logic of the analysts is that it is the adoption of the colonial boundaries by the OAU that has contributed to instability in Africa. Thirdly, that the solution to instability in Africa lies in ethnogeneous states. While we must admit that a lot of multinational states in Africa are beset by instability, in fact, in Somalia - a failed state - is one of the few examples of an African ethnogeneous state, and yet it degenerated into a vicious civil war that has left it without central authority.

A variation of this argument is that the way forward on African boundaries is to accept President Museveni's position on rendering them irrelevant. Frankly, I am still not comfortable with this formulation. Coming from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region, I do not need visas to enter fifteen West African States; I can stay in any ECOWAS state for 90 days without immigration permit; I can carry on business without permit and community goods are not supposed to attract import duty. These are considerable achievements for the region after only 40 years of independence. Yet these actions have been taken without an ideological position on boundaries. More profound is the Ecomog syndrome which we have seen in effect in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A comparative analysis of these developments in West Africa will find a parallel with the common visa regime among some European Union members, and the European Union military involvement in Albania, without the imputation over artificiality of boundaries. In other words, African boundaries will fade in effect without disappearing on the map just as European boundaries are starting to fade in effect while remaining on the map. For the purpose of clarification, let me use an illustration: If we are confronted by two people breathing, and we keep drawing attention to the fact that one is breathing, unless that one is a walking dead, I cannot fathom what point is being made. If one is not going to make incessant reference to the artificiality of European frontiers, one should stop making such references to African frontiers.

Calls for recolonisation

Earlier on, I have referred to a patronising interest arising from frustrations some people feel about Africa. This patronising interest has manifested itself in proposals advocating a form of the return of the mandates or trusteeship system to Africa. It sounds ridiculous but we should be slow to laugh because its advocates are not members of some die hard lunatic fringe of the colonial or neo-colonial group. The first serious proponent of this idea in 1995 was Leo Tindermans, the former Belgian Foreign Minister- and foreign ministers are not known for levity. Since then two serious analysts, one in the International Herald Tribune and the other a three-piece series in The Times of August 8,15 and 22 1997 by Matthew Parris, have taken up the advocacy of this idea. Let me quote from the ultimate piece by Parris:

"To suggest that world opinion would permit Western powers to re-colonise for themselves significant tracts in Africa is fanciful, though not beyond imagination....What might be less fanciful is an idea proposed two years ago in a speech by Leo Tindermans. The former Belgian Foreign Minister spoke tentatively about reviving something akin to the United Nations mandate. The speech was greeted with horror... But it was brave, and true. The advantage of a multi-national mandate is that it need not be a wholly "white" initiative; countries like South Africa and India could be involved in steering and overseeing mandating powers. But day-to-day administration might best be handled by a single power, mandated to govern, rewarded with an agreed share in revenues, and supervised by the mandating authority."

Apart from the fact that I would have thought a Belgian State functionary would be the last to proffer ideas about how to stabilise Africa given their superb and impeccable record in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, the problem between French Belgium and Flemish Belgium should dictate concentrating on problems nearer home. However, the fact which must not be lost on Africans is that there is a clear and present danger that the world may be running out of patience with Africa and Africans. In case we Africans are tempted to say so what, let me throw another new phenomenon in the pile. DNA tests, we are told, have now confirmed that we are all Africans, even if we who never left Africa regard the newly found lost tribes of Africa with less than enthusiasm as a pretty dodgy lot. If we accept that Huntingdon might have got it wrong when he argued that with the death of the cold war what we will witness is not Francis Fukiyama's end of history but a clash of civilisations, then I suggest that what we will witness is a scramble for resources. Well, if we are all from Africa, then the resources of Africa belong to humanity-all of us, Africans, Europeans, Asians, Americans-all of us. If we who remained in Africa cannot manage Africa, then those who left may feel that they are entitled to have a go under extreme conditions, Think about it.

West inflicted by similar problems as Africa

So what is the way forward? The general line of departure is to accept that there is no problem facing Africa which is not replicated elsewhere. Africa has failed states but so does Europe as is evidenced in former Yugoslavia, former Czechoslovakia, Georgia, etc. Massive corruption well documented by Transparency International, afflicts Africa but Europe, Mexico and Asia also suffer from corruption. We also must spare a thought for two facts" European banks are beneficiaries of African corruption and secondly, Europe has refused to emulated the United States in making it illegal for her companies to offer bribes to secure contracts. We also have to accept that Africa is beset by rapacious military regimes and civilian dictators who up to now were aided and abetted by non-African powers partly for cold war purposes and partly for reasons of economic and political influence. Africa is also faced with political conflicts arising from being multi-ethnic and multi-national, but so are many European states such as Britain, Belgium, Italy and so also is Canada.

There are two competing visions for African future. The first vision is a continuation of the attempt to impose a uni-ethnic or uni-national hegemony on a multi-cultural, multi-national or multi-religious system. This is evident all over Africa where either operating a first-past the post electoral systems or a contrived institution such as one-party systems or rigged electoral systems, one ethnic group or national group has sought to impose hegemony over other ethnic or national groups within their boundaries.

The other vision is to recognise the need to design a system that recognises the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-national nature of each African state. Before going into details, let me by digression point out that in Europe, this kind of situation has been addressed through proportional representation, through devolution and through federalism. For example, in the United Kingdom, both Wales and Scotland are each given seats in Westminster larger than they would be entitled to through their populations. Even now, the United Kingdom is embarked on a devolution exercise.

An inclusive political system needed

The first step for African governments is a creation of national governments where each of the nationalities in each African state appoints its own representatives to such a government. It should not be left to the ruling group to self-appoint representatives of other groups. Secondly, each African state should summon a sovereign national conference (as have been done in South Africa and Ethiopia) to construct a consensual political system acceptable to all. Perhaps I ought to explain the difference between a sovereign national conference and a constitutional conference. Under normal circumstances, there should be no difference. However, the Nigerian experience shows that the military regimes have always appointed up to one-third of the members of such a constitutional conference, have always arrogated to themselves the right to vary , amend and to do whatever they like with the draft constitution approved by such a conference. In the case of a sovereign national conference, the government of the day will have no right to vary or amend the draft agreed to by such a conference. The right to approve or reject such a draft will lie only with a referendum. That is the essence of a Sovereign National Conference.

Even though it is for the representatives of the people to agree to the terms of their constitution, let me suggest that Federalism readily recommends itself in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-national setting. Experience shows that most of the issues that matter most to people are best dealt with at regional and local levels. These are issues that lead to conflict and antagonism and tension when handled by a central authority. Without attempting to provide an exhaustive list, such matters as foreign policy, interstate highways, aviation, regulation of telecommunications frequency, defence etc. which do not raise tension should be reserved for the central authority. I should point out that devolution from state to local government and local communities should be considered. When we talk about ethnic or national groups, we tend to forget small ethnic groups that may not be more than 200,000 to 500,000 but with a distinct language and culture. To have such matters as elementary education and chieftaincy reserved for them could be a confidence building measure to assuage their fears of being dominated.

Separation of powers

Let me also advocate separation of powers among the executives, the legislature and the judiciary. For the avoidance of doubt, let me reiterate my firm belief in an independent judiciary manned by judges of integrity, impartiality and wisdom. When I called for a judiciary that is sensitive to its environment, I was not calling for a judiciary that is subservient to the politicians. Perhaps an illustration will better convey my position: In 1979, the Nigerian Supreme Court was faced with a unique case. The Nigerian Constitution had laid down two conditions for any winner of a presidential election. Firstly, the candidate must have more votes than his opponents, and secondly, the candidate must win 25% of the votes cast in 2/3 of the states. Now Nigeria had 19 states. So the Supreme Court had to rule on what was 2/3 of 19 states. When this question was raised during the Constitutional Conference, the answer which was received without dissent was since you cannot talk about part of a state, of course, the provision meant 13.

Unfortunately, the candidate with a majority of votes had 25% in only 12 states. The question which then arose was should Nigerian go to an electoral college as dictated by the constitution or as the lawyer for the leading candidate argued, you must look at the thirteenth state and see whether his votes in the 13th state was up to 25 percent in 2/3 of that state and not 25 percent of the whole state. The nation was in a state of tension. You see, the out-going military head of state was from the South, as was the Chief Justice and the candidate who brought the case against the leading candidate who was from the North. That was only one aspect of the political environment. The second part of the environment was that if the elections were to go to an electoral college, that electoral college was the Parliament where the party of the leading candidate did not have a majority of the votes. The fear was that at the electoral college there would have been massive buying of votes that if the leading candidate then lost, then the majority of the country that voted for him might have felt that the election had been stolen.

So the Supreme Court could have taken a rigid interpretation of the constitution and held that the election should go to an electoral college and that it was none of its business if the majority of voters now felt that the whole business was a conspiracy among a Southern out-going Head of State, a Southern Chief Justice and the Southern candidate. In the event, the Supreme Court held that the 25% applied only to 2/3 of the thirteenth state and not the whole state. To me , the judgment was an act of political wisdom, and not strict interpretation. It would have led to a greater injustice and grave dangers of instability for the Supreme Court to have held otherwise. By the way, the judgment went against the candidate that I thought was the better candidate even though I did not vote for any candidate.

It is not only the judiciary that should show a sensitivity to the political environment. Every institution, including and especially the civilian political elite, should exhibit this sensitivity. Our civilian political elite tends to emphasise their absolute right to rule. I believe that while it is right, it must take cognisance of the existence of a military institution that has tasted political blood. This means that the right to rule should be accompanied by an equal recognition of the fragility of the political system within which they are operating. For example, a settled and long established political system can withstand winter of discontent marked by crippling strikes or a shut down of government because of conflict with the legislature over the budget. But in a developing political system, such tactics is tantamount to inviting a willing and eager military establishment to become politically active.

Free market system with human face

If I may move on to an economic future for Africa: We need to admit that Africa has to embrace a free-market system. But care has to be taken to avoid the creation of a large underclass that in itself may become a source of instability. Africa has a very fragile social and economic system, without a social security system. One African in employment supports probably about 20 people through the extended family system. So when African governments are asked to downsize their workforce, a thought should be given to what happens to millions who are reduced to poverty. It has to be a free market system with a human face.

How will Africa balance the desire for democracy and the need for sustained development which may necessitate strong (authoritarian) government? There is no easy and direct answer. Comparisons are invidious but empirical studies from the experiences in Asia and Latin America which seem to suggest that authoritarian governments have led to sustained development should be balanced by the African experience where authoritarianism has not led to sustained development. On the other hand, a purposeful, efficient and authoritarian regime may just be what will be needed to administer the unpleasant but necessary economic medicine needed to overcome three decades of decay in Africa.

Regional approach to development and conflict resolution

In as far as the intra-state African relations is concerned, there is no alternative to the positive development of the regional approaches to African development and conflict resolution. The involvement of SADDEC in resolving the Lesotho crisis, and the involvement of ECOWAS in Liberia and Sierra Leone should not only be welcomed, they should be encouraged in future conflicts. This does not mean that there have not been difficulties. Difficulties should be expected as experiences in Bosnia and Albania have shown. Practice makes perfect.

Africans must show a readiness to take the initiative in defining African problems and defining African solution to those problems. Now that the Organisation of African Unity has moved away from a strict interpretation of "non-interference" clause in its charter and now that the French are downsizing their military and strategic interests in Africa, the future, hopefully, will witness African states seizing the initiatives on African issues. Africans must recognise that there is a clear danger of Africa being a target of cowboy intervention - the Executive Outcome phenomenon, perhaps in conjunction with multi-national corporations. After all, we must not forget that business preceded colonial political power to Africa.

It is essential for Africans, (the political elite, the business elite, the military, the intelligentsia), to put forward a 21st Century blue-print for co-operation with those in the international community who have an interest in Africa. This means that Africans must be prepared quite early on to set the terms for resolving each conflict, and these terms will set the parameters for any involvement by the international community. Africa is still reactive on African conflicts. It needs to become pro-active.

The West, especially Europe, needs to take advantage of generations of its won citizens with mixed ancestry - Euro Africans - whose talents as Africanists are still under-utilised in reporting and analysing Africa.


Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, former Nigerian Foreign Minister, delivered this lecture at the Wilton Park Conference on Building Political Stability In Sub-Saharan Africa, September 1997.

Date Uploaded 1/23/2008
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