Tough love just for Africa?

Despite the rhetoric of Western leaders, it appears the West is happy to keep Africa poor to exploit its natural wealth.
Chinwuba Iyizoba | 24 September 2009
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Africa has come to America this week as President Barack Obama hosts a lunch for two dozen sub-Saharan leaders during a week of events which include a session of the United Nations General Assembly, a special session on climate change, and a meeting of the G20 on the world economy.

On the lunch menu for the Africans, according to US officials, are discussions about what progress their countries are making on three fronts: job creation, especially for young people; creating a better climate for trade and investment; and ways to mobilize African agriculture to create jobs and help feed the continent.The meeting follows recent visits to Africa by President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in which the message has been, to quote

Mrs Clinton: "Africa must take charge of their destiny…and the fate of Africa is up to the Africans and that the United States, while ready to work with you, has no ‘magic wand’ to solve endemic problems.""Tough love," Mrs Clinton called it, indicating a new policy towards Africa based not on money handouts but on truth-filled words. In response to this challenge, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, has gone to New York with an upbeat message about a new wave of reform sweeping across Africa as countries leave war behind and concentrate on building prosperity.

But he has left behind some sceptics, including Reverend Gabriel Odima, president of the US-based Africa Centre for Peace and Democracy, who says President Obama should not only focus on social and economic issues, but also on human rights and good governance.

As a matter of fact, Obama did just that during his recent visit, but it is a message often undercut by first-world leaders.

Take the example of Gabon. Earlier this month, as defeated rivals denounced as "rigged" the election victory of Ali Ben Bongo as president, President Nicholas Sarkozy sent a
telegram congratulating Bongo on his win.

France has always taken a close interest in its former colony. Omar Bongo, Ali’s father, had ruled Gabon for 42 years. He was the handpicked successor of the first president of Gabon, Leon Mba, installed by France at independence in 1960, and re-installed after he was deposed by a military coup in 1964.

Bernard Bongo converted to Islam in 1973 and took the name Omar. Thanks to Gabon’s oil, and in spite of the rising poverty in the country, he became one of the world richest men, owning strings of properties in France, and was an unflinching ally of Paris. He made Gabon a one party state as soon as he took power.

The first multiparty election in 30 years took place in 1990, followed by presidential elections in 1993, both a mere charade. Omar and his party won both amid serious civil disturbance and protest of the people of Gabon. Still, in 2003, Omar got the Gabonese national assembly to abolish the two-term presidency to pave way for his life rule. In 2005, again, Omar was reelected to the presidency amid intense protest, industrial action and ever-rising poverty and inflation.

Today, an estimated 40 percent of people are unemployed in Gabon and the UN says that between 60 and 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line. The World Bank ranks Gabon in the bottom third on the control of corruption. Yet unrepentant and arrogant, Ali, like his father, knows no one can stop him: "As far as I am concerned, I am and I will always be the president of all the people of Gabon," he said, settling down to rule for life.

Back in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to a group of university students in Dakar: "If you choose democracy, liberty, justice and law, then France will be with you to construct them." That means, at the very least, that the French president should have encouraged an inquiry into the complaints of vote-rigging in Gabon. Instead, his hasty congratulations make Mrs Clinton’s recent words in Nigeria -- "Africa doesn’t need more strong men but good leadership" -- seem like yet another western contradiction.

This is the sort of thing that leads many Africans to believe that the West does not want to see Africa progress. In Modern Times, Paul Johnson traced the history of this belief. He noted that it was at the 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Indonesia that African and Asian participants claimed for the first time that former western colonies where poor and backwards not because of lack of human resources but because the colonial powers wanted them that way. They were subjecting the colonies to a deliberate policy of underdevelopment and fostering bad and corrupt leaders in order to exploit the rich mineral resources of African countries for the development of the West.

But Johnson does not admit this conspiracy exists. "The colonialists did not conspire against the natives, but against themselves," he wrote. "They hated one another and would work to undermine one another, refusing to cooperate even when it made economic sense." This, according to Johnson, led to a slipshod decolonisation process: "The colonists ended up handing power into the hands or vote manipulators and fraudsters and professional politicians, who rapidly ruined most of the countries they ruled," he wrote.

Furthermore, this same rivalry among the western nations has sustained pliant leaders in Africa. According to Johnson: "Rivalry between the United States and the USSR for the rich resources of Congo culminated in General Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule, an extremely corrupt regime that lasted 32 years and sapped the country of its income and stability."

As an African, I find myself agreeing with Johnson. Disruptive and greedy western desires bear a lot of responsibility for the failures of the past policies and are already threatening the new Obama-Clinton policy. It is fine that Mrs Clinton came to visit us without money; Africa does not really need money, since in most cases it only serves to build more castles in Europe for greedy dictators. I believe that the first financial aid to Africa must be the return of looted wealth.

It was sad that, when Ms Clinton was asked what the US and its allies are doing to ensure that the continent's monies stashed oversees are returned and that western countries don't continue to be a safe haven for African loot, she quickly changed the subject. Surely this evasive and insincere attitude is what is keeping many African strongmen in triumph over ordinary Africans. Until they know that Europe will not shield them because of their wealth, they will not stop bleeding Africa dry.

The Obama administration’s new African policy is indeed admirable, although Mrs Clinton should consider a tour of European countries -- like France -- to chit-chat with their leaders, still bent on propping up anachronisms in Africa.

I sincerely believe that Africa’s problem does not need magic wands, only truth and love. Tough love should also be truthful love. Yes, one half of truth is talking straight to African leaders about stealing and looting from the poor and the other half is reminding the western leaders not to take advantage of us and exploit our misfortunes

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria

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