Africa needs sound system of governance


HILLARY Clinton is following up her trip to Asia with 11 days in Africa.

A co-author of mine, Nick Thompson, went the other way, and after three months in Africa, just out of Stanford University, arrived in Southeast Asia and called me and asked, "What happened? These people are so rich, Africa is so poor!"

I proposed we write about it, since he's also my now well-known son. The book that transpired was The Baobab and the Mango Tree, where the former is the tree from The Little Prince that sucks up all the sustenance around, like African governments and leaders, and the mango tree just radiates nourishment and replenishes itself. (The mango tree metaphor came from a book by the King of Thailand.)

Hillary has not minced words. In South Africa she named names and publicly, if undiplomatically, showed her exasperation with Nigeria, fifth-largest producer of oil and yet an importer of finished oil products.

As she knows, that all started when the worst leader anywhere in post-war history, Sani Abacha, had all the oil go out, closing down the middlemen so that he could garner cuts on both imports and exports, back in the 1990s.

That was the worst, but there are some in close competition. Nelson Mandela's successor in South Africa let hundreds of thousands of people die of AIDS rather than face up to the colossal tragedy hitting his country.

The war going on in eastern Congo now covers an area equal to Western Europe, but nobody cares. The only crisis-hit countries Clinton isn't visiting are Somalia, presumably because she doesn't want to be in "Black Hawk Down II", and Sudan, where she isn't welcome.

In Kenya, also on her itinerary, corruption has got worse, and it's anybody's guess whether Barack Obama's ethnic ties to the prime minister, who really won the presidency last time, will count in next year's rematch. I think so. But Hillary has a tough sell there, in her message of "good governance brings rewards", because they've just gone too far down the tubes.

Nigeria is worse. There, it's a problem of weak governance even more than bad governance. The new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, isn't up to the job. In the Niger Delta, where most of the oil is, marauding bands that are something between freedom fighters and thugs call the shots -- and keep the government off-balance, not to mention world oil prices.

How can Africa have done so poorly and Asia so well? There are a lot of reasons. Look at the map. It's a huge land mass. There aren't the ports of Southeast Asia, which clever Chinese made into great cities. There are precious few rivers that are navigable. (And the rivers aren't friendly. I was in Leopoldville, as Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, was then known, when the German ambassador went for a swim and got eaten by a crocodile.)

There aren't plinth states like China and India that also embody great civilisations -- and which keep the world right now out of deep depression.

And then there's that sensitive problem of cultural and intellectual capital. There were civilisations underlying much of pre- and post-colonial Africa, but they didn't learn the art of compounding the way Europe did for centuries -- and Asia is doing now.

Obama chose Ghana (by the way, the name of one of those historic African civilisations but one located 2,000km to the north) for his visit because it's making so much progress. But it spent its first 50 years figuring every possible way to reverse what growth it sometimes managed. It only succeeded in more than doubling its population.

We are told Africa is attractive now to investment because its people are starved of good products and the average market growth is an impressive four per cent. But it will need that for a generation to catch up to where middling Asian countries are now.

What it needs most of all is what Hillary Clinton is trying to sell: good governance. Somehow, the British and French colonisers didn't embed enough tough tradition to last beyond the plunderers and murderers who came to power all over the continent after the first wave of independence leaders -- and even some of those weren't very impressive. Look at Malaysia and Singapore by contrast.

Even where there was no colonial power in Asia, it's better. There's a lot of corruption in Thailand, for example, but no one doubts the abilities of its governing class to deliver services. There's a history of strong governance, though we'll see if it can survive the first great challenge to its capacities.

Not a single African state comes close to any of the original Asean Six in strength of governance. The biggest states, Nigeria and South Africa, which should have been the plinth countries of West and South Africa, have frittered away their opportunities.

So, good luck, Hillary. Africa is no longer getting patronising words. If Africans want to gain the respect of the rest of the world, its leaders are going to have to be tougher morally and ethically, and help their countries start building traditions of good governance the way Asians have to such a remarkable degree.

The writer was emeritus professor of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University


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