Is Africa resetting to 1980?

Since 1991 when African intellectuals began to describe a “wave of democratisation” sweeping across the continent, Africa has been rapidly dismantling the vestiges of authoritarianism, military rule and satellite states

A meeting of the African Union’s predecessor for most of the 1970s and 1980s, was dominated by military leaders: Idi Amin, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Museveni, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Mobutu Sese Seko, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Jerry Rawlings, Muammar Gadaffi, Ibrahim Babangida, etc. Some king chiefs, one party supremos- Robert Mugabe, Daniel arap Moi, Kenneth Kaunda, Habib Borguiba, Omar Bongo, Paul Biya, Felix Houphouet-Boigny and the likes would also be in attendance.

The end of the cold war led to the inevitable dismantling of cold war relationships. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the collapse of client states that failed to quickly realign themselves with the new unipolar world order. “Smart states” like Angola and Uganda survived the first wave of reversals by “resetting” themselves to the priorities of the West, adopting donor policies even where these policies were so disruptive and disingenuous.

The managers of Masaka Cooperative Union are spot-on for example for demanding that government “recapitalise” their once giant Union with part of the $700 million in stabilisation taxes levied on the coffee sector in 1990-1992 when coffee prices rose above norm. The 30 per cent stabilisation tax levied at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank was never to return, as Unions and Cooperatives began a decade of decline and eventual collapse reduced to “selling” dumped US cooking oil for recurrent operations.

In other instances, age intervened. Following the Boigny model, political change arrived in the form of either a smooth transition from father to heir- the path of choice for Gabon, Egypt and North Korea whose father to son political transitions have many admirers on the continent; or failed transitions like the DRC, Tunisia (where a senile President Borguiba had to be led out of State House faculties impaired)and Malawi under Hastings Kamuzu Banda was more or less the same.

In 2010, there was fear that a wealthier Africa- the continent has a real opportunity to participate in the global economy due to the growing importance of its natural resources, commodities and rapidly transforming urban populations- may start to look like the lost cause of the 1980s. This fear is not entirely unfounded. The list of failed states continues to grow.

If Ivory Coast descends into ethnic mayhem as two intellectuals, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, battle for power, the list of failed states, the peer leaders of the 1980s where some form of sanity will all have a serious question mark attached to them. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, (Kenya for a moment looked like a failed state after the 2007 election debacle) and now the limits of authoritarianism have been tested to breaking point in Tunisia and soon in most of Arab Africa, the cycle will be completed.

Each region will have a major failed state: Southern Africa led by Zimbabwe, West Africa led by Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, North Africa anchored by Egypt. Major demographic states like the DRC, Sudan met that definition a long time ago unable to defend their borders and turning millions of their populations into “paper targets” for warlords.

The rest of the miracles left for the Western media to praise. Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Angola are such a patchwork of reality, no story can withstand scrutiny. In fact, Western largesse remains largely mobilised to maintain parasitic relationships that continue to impoverish the poor and have assembled impossible political bureaucracies at the helm to create the part cellphone- part teargas- part military state.

A Nigerian American professor friend of mine on his first trip to economic miracle Tanzania summed it up: Chaos and disorganisation, after landing in a middle of a blackout. The immigration officer was so kind to my Chinua Achebe friend that he helped fill out his landing form under tadooba. My Achebe friend was marvelled at the tourists on the streets, economic venturers at every street corner but appalled at the core ineptitude of this economic miracle.

Many of Kampala’s hills are now dissected by beautiful villas. If you were flying overhead you could miss Kampala’s slums. It’s only when you fly closer to the ground that you realise that if you suffered a heart attack, a boda boda is your best bet to get to a hospital on time, not an ambulance. Deputy Inspector General of Police, Julius Odwe’s testimony to the Commission on Kasubi Tombs is instructive.

At 9p.m., he received a phone call from President Museveni informing him Kasubi was on fire. Without that phone call he would have continued resting comfortably at home. By midnight the fire tenders had run out of retardant and water to extinguish Uganda’s most important architectural landmark. You have to see the age of Uganda’s fire engines to wonder why riot police must wear $50,000 worth of anti-riot gear pinned to their bodies while the fire engines stay in such a precarious state.

Sadly, whenever we have a “Tunisia” or an “Ivory Coast” in the news, the intelligentsia argues how this was just an exception, not a trend. Neat rows of ‘cooked’ statistics provide the “ammo” for these arguments.

Mr Ssemogerere, an attorney and social entrepreneur, practices law in New York . This article was first published in the Daily Monitor.