Saturday, December 13, 2014

Democracy or Benign Dictatorships

 Oby Ezekweseli, Vice President of the World Bank and former minister in President Obasanjo's government in Nigeria traced the lack of participation by the vast majority of Africans in their own development over the past 50 years which has left 70 - 80% of them absolutely poor. She blamed the "parasitic" African elites, not just for looting their countries, but for preventing any of the benefits of economic growth reaching their people. Her own country, Nigeria, is very rich but has some of the worst human development figures in the world.

She also pointed out that external actors, the aid donors, the World Bank and the IMF who drove the structural adjustment economic reforms of the 1990s and 2000s and left African citizens with no part to play in making the national choices for development. These reforms were necessary, she said, but “The ownership of the process by African citizens has been the missing link." The next stage of development, said Oby, can only be done with the participation of the people, "no external force can do that... The change you have been waiting for will not come from the elite class waking up and having an epiphany. The change has to be made by the people. They are the only ones who can."

Dismissing the current crop of African rulers, she expressed her pride in the people of Burkina Faso for the uprising that ejected President Blaise Compaoré, who ruled there for 27 years. The leaders "absolutely don't care" about their own citizens, she said, but spend their time among the global elite "all of whom have each other's' phone numbers".

She urged the African diaspora to return to Africa and lead the struggle.

Put aside the oil and mineral-rich countries in Africa, and, as Oby pointed out, you find that the fastest growers are those with stability and strong institutions such as effective ministries that deliver health and education to their people. In turn these attract aid and investment. These countries are Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania.

But what else do they have in common? Ethiopia and Rwanda are top-down dictatorships ruled by parties that fought their way to power and have ruled since 1991 and 1994 respectively. They deliver health and education to their people but they do not allow freedom of speech or association. Their media are tightly controlled. Uganda is a less powerful dictatorship but President Yoweri Museveni also came to power through the barrel of a gun in 1986 and his army has controlled the country ever since. The 'Walk to Work' mass movement in 2011, which complained about lack of services and high prices, was brutally suppressed.

Museveni was forced by aid donors to open up politics and he now has to put up with a rumbustious parliament and a moderately free press. A grumpy population, especially in the capital, might vote for someone else if they were sure that someone was allowed to run in a fair election. That is unlikely. At election times the state, including the police and the army, is an extension of the ruling party.

Mozambique and Tanzania are still run by the parties that led those countries at independence. Both will soon become exceedingly rich because of oil and gas; God-given resources that are profoundly anti-democratic.

Oil-rich countries do not need to raise taxes from their people, they mainline millions from oil companies straight into the treasury. So whoever is in power when those revenues begin to flow may stay there for decades. There is still some democratic space in these countries and there are real national debates with opposition parties in both of them, although it is unlikely that an opposition party could win without provoking violent reactions from the ruling parties.

So is benign dictatorship the best Africans can hope for?

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