Tragically, we are internalising the art of ‘Newspeak’

Monday May 13 2024

An aerial view of the slums upgrading in Kibera, Kenya on February 18, 2009. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


Last week’s column discussed the International Development Association, which held a summit of African leaders in Nairobi on April 29.

The article contrasted displays of wealth by attending leaders with the poverty of citizens they govern. It pointed out the tragic and comedic nature of the pomp and ceremony African leaders love so much.

They are tragic because, rather than project national economic power, they tell of Africa’s crisis of development, which is characterised by leaders living like emperors amid grinding poverty.

Comical because there is something of a pantomime in them. The amusement, however, is quickly replaced by grief because, a few kilometres from the pantomime, people eke out hellish living.

If those delegates at the IDA summit had visited Kibera or Mathare or any one unplanned settlement east of Nairobi, they would probably realise that whatever it was they thought they were doing was not making an impact.

Read: NGUGI: In 64 years, how has IDA reduced poverty in Africa?


An incident in Malawi will illustrate the tragedy and comedy of African officialdom’s obsession with pomp and ceremony. In 2021, after begging, Malawi received the Covid vaccine.

But, within a few weeks, thousands of doses were incinerated because they had reached their expiry date. Destroying vaccines, you had begged for because you failed to make plans on how to efficiently administer them is tragic. But what was comical was the incineration ceremony, complete with a red-carpet reception for the health minister.

Instead of resigning in shame, a personal and national failure became an opportunity for self-aggrandisement.

Today’s article focuses on the language used at the IDA summit, which repeated catchphrases rather than provide practical measurable plans.

A post-summit communique talked of “the leaders’ unwavering commitment to strengthen governance, unlock private sector potential for job creation, mobilise domestic resources, and deliver on climate change promises, increase energy and digital access, and enhance resilience to climate change and conflict.”

How do we measure strengthening governance? What keys will unlock private sector potential? So leaders in attendance did not know about mobilising domestic resources? Wow, must have been such a revelation. Isn’t digital access linked to youth poverty and energy costs? Should you not try to eliminate conflict rather than survive it? So much hot air. Such a waste of time.

But this language, similar to “Newspeak” in the fictional totalitarian state of Oceania, has been learnt by journalists.

One wrote about the IDA conference: “The summit witnessed the birth of a significant partnership – a coalition uniting civil society foundations, the private sector, and young people. The new coalition will champion a robust and ambitious replenishment of IDA’s resources, fuelling Africa’s development engine.”

What are the practical mechanics of this significant coalition? Is IDA blissfully unaware that it needs its resources replenished? Africa has a development engine that simply needs refuelling? The journalist did not interrogate IDA’s “Newspeak.” S/he became a practitioner.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator