I went to Cote d’Ivoire and found out all about ‘African hospitality’

Saturday March 23 2013

Our rulers ask for honour and privilege they cannot accept when it is given. I will never understand why some governments rush into “inviting” their “brothers” to “please honour us with your presence” at a meeting of a continental organisation to discuss this or that issue.

This usually takes the form of a meeting, say, of the OAU/AU, in Addis Ababa at summit level at the end of which some country’s head of state will pronounce such an invitation.

It could also be a minister of foreign affairs or of finance who, at the end of a ministerial meeting somewhere on the continent, will invite “my brother ministers to accord me and my country the privilege of receiving you in my country, which is also your own.”

I am expressing my bafflement on account of the obvious unpreparedness displayed by these presidents’ and ministers’ countries when the time arrives for them to receive the privilege they asked for. More often than not they seem to treat that privilege as some imposition placed on them by their colleagues rather than something they wished on themselves.

At the approach of the big event, the relevant government departments become abuzz with activity, emergency meetings, hasty hotel bookings, hurriedly put-together protocols, procurements made on the hoof, the capital city enjoying an unaccustomed sprucing up.

One would think this is a completely unexpected event such as the funeral of an important person whose death was unforeseen, but no, it is something that is not only on the relevant organisation’s annual calendar but also one the country in question asked to host, often through strenuous lobbying.


What could be the cause of this apparently schizophrenic behaviour, of wanting something without wanting it, I have always wondered.

One could be tempted to put it down to the exuberance evident in some of our rulers’ meetings, when emotions get the better of them and they tend to declare the contents of their hearts rather than what their national bank accounts would warrant.

This usually happens when they have been treated to extreme forms of what they call “traditional African hospitality,” code for spending what you do not have and cannot account for. In the indigestion of the fiesta, few heads, including those of states, can appreciate the grave consequences of their easy invitations.

Ethiopia is the only country that does not have to solicit this unwanted privilege, being the HQ of the AU, the ECA and a multitude of other organisations. But rather than let Ethiopia do the job, African states totally incapable of footing the steep bills, will vie to play host.

Unhappily, it’s not only the financial cost that comes to haunt them. Even authentic “traditional African hospitality” is absent. Delegations are stranded at airports for half days and more because of visa processes that they were told had been waived.

To the media, it’s a big story: The country has not recovered after the crisis; cabals and factions are rife; the minister of this and that does not like the president, this is sabotage, the population is restive; etc.

This, and more, was heard when, last week, Cote d’Ivoire hosted a joint conference of the AU and ECA ministers of finance and economic development, having invited national delegates and media organisations via a letter signed by the heads of the two venerable institutions. This was supposed to facilitate entry.

Still, journalists were kept at the airport for several hours and their passports were held for days, notwithstanding Mama Nkhosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s and Senor Carlos Lopes’s signatures on their invitation letters.

If someone were trying to undermine President Alassane Ouattara in the minds of African journalists in Abidjan last week, the saboteur succeeded. Sadly.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]