Why does Africa fail is a question that has exercised the continent’s best minds since Independence.
In The Wretched of the Earth, a much-loved text of pan-African scholarship, Frantz Fanon theorised that the nationalists who took power were alienated from the people by colonial education and would, therefore, create policies that would perpetuate a neo-colonial relationship between the newly independent states and their former masters.
Subsequent study and experience have demonstrated that Fanon’s psychoanalytical theory of underdevelopment is reductionist and simplistic.
However, in the same book, Fanon warned that attempting to base the new states on pre-colonial traditions, as the nationalists and intellectuals of the Negritude persuasion advocated, would be counterproductive.
In this regard, Fanon’s warning was prescient. Indeed, Fanon argued that the very act of resistance to colonialism was creating a new culture that was the correct foundation for the new African society.
Then there was Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian and political activist, who in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, argued that the colonial powers deliberately underdeveloped Africa, and the relationship of exploiter and exploited would continue to make Africa a supplier of primary goods to fuel Europe’s development.
Rodney advocated a revolutionary dismantling of that relationship. A teacher in the University of Dar es Salaam at the time of the Arusha Declaration, he saw Tanzania’s Ujamaa experiment as a revolutionary effort to restructure the exploitative relationship between coloniser and colonised.
Ujamaa would later collapse. While Rodney’s argument is a great academic contribution to post-colonial African discourse, it too proved to be too constrained by Marxist orthodoxy.
In Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo blames Africa’s underdevelopment on the debt trap. She asks poignantly: “Why is it that Africa, alone among the continents of the world, seems to be locked in a cycle of dysfunction?”
Unlike Fanon and Rodney, Moyo’s analysis is more realistic, less encumbered by ideological baggage. Her thesis is that Africa borrows then misuses the money, then borrows again, and thus becomes trapped in a vicious cycle of debt dependency.
However, Moyo’s analysis is also reductionist, as she chooses to view Africa’s underdevelopment exclusively through the prism of debt.
These three – the psychoanalytical, the Marxist and the policy-based – are fairly representative of the range of approaches to Africa’s dysfunction puzzle. The deficiency in all three analyses is that they, to various degrees of emphasis, focus on an external source for Africa’s dysfunction.
They fail to emphasise the critical roles played by the three mutually influencing factors of leadership, politics and national culture in defining, shaping and driving a society.
Three recent events have reminded us just how critical leadership, politics and national culture are to the development project. The first is a post doing rounds on social media.
It is about how the Croatian president took leave and paid her own economy ticket to go cheer her national team at the World Cup, while a group of Kenyan MPs, with parliament still in session, travelled first class at taxpayers’ expense to go to the Cup.
The second is the wild, literally frothing-at-the-mouth, vitriol spewed by Senator Kipchumba Murkomen over the evictions of people from the Mau Forest. Its unambiguous aim was to incite hate.
The Mau is a water tower that sustains the livelihoods of communities in surrounding as well as far flung regions. A leader in his position should weigh different interests and, using temperate language, offer a solution to a problem.
The last is Obama’s speech at the Mandela centenary celebrations in South Africa. The speech traced the triumphs and challenges of the democratic project over the past century.
It spoke to our common humanity, and appealed to our best instincts. It challenged us as individuals, communities and nations to strive harder to advance Mandela’s legacy. It was uplifting and inspirational.
The first and second instances above show how leadership in Africa is used to create and profit from a national culture of corruption and violence.
The third defines leadership, and reminds us how backward and rotten ours is.
Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi.