The Fate of Africa

Martin Meredith
Friday, January 20, 2006; 1:00 PM

Martin Meredith, author of 'The Fate of Africa,' was online to discuss the myriad problems that Africa has faced in the past half-century.

Fifty years ago, as Europe's colonial powers withdrew, Africa moved with enormous hope and fervor toward democracy and economic independence. Dozens of new states were launched amid much jubilation and the world's applause. African leaders stepped forward to tackle the problems of development and nation-building. In the mid-twentieth century, Africa was a continent of promise. Today, however, the promise is still largely unfulfilled.

What happened to this vast continent, so rich in resources, culture and history, to bring parts of it so close to destitution and despair in the space of two generations?

Focusing on the key personalities, events and themes of the independence era, Meredith's history attempts to explore and explain the myriad problems that Africa has faced in the past half-century, and faces still.

Martin Meredith is a journalist, biographer and historian who has written extensively on Africa.

A transcript follows.


Nairobi, Kenya: In light of the recent unrest in Uganda and Ethiopia, as well as the political shakeup in Kenya following the failed constitutional referendum, are you beginning to suspect that democracy in eastern Africa is taking a step backward?

Martin Meredith: Events in Uganda and Ethiopia (and Eritrea) show how easily African leaders who were once hailed as representing a 'new breed' of democratic politician slip into dictatorship. Because all three countries have experienced such violence and upheaval in their recent history, there were initially sound reasons for regarding strong leadership as an essential part of restoring stability and for overlooking serious flaws in political management. But both Yoweri Museveni and Meles Zenawi have forfeited any claim to call themselves democratic leaders. So, a definite step backwards for the cause of democracy in East Africa.Kenya also remains a troubled country, not so much because of the

failed constitutional referendum, but because of the scale of corruption which flourishes despite government promises.


Nairobi, Kenya: Western donors have poured nearly $500 billion into Africa's economy over the past 40 years, and it really doesn't seem to be helping in the long term. The aid seems to have a negative effect---stifling local economies and home-grown development, keeping Africans in a state of dependence, etc. Should the West just leave Africa to its own fate, for better or worse?

Martin Meredith: The solution to Africa's malaise can only come from a combination of effective leadership by Africans themselves and Western assistance. African states on their own have neither the expertise nor the resources to make much headway in resolving such a mountain of problems. Though much Western aid has been squandered and much still finds its way into the foreign bank accounts of corrupt African politicians and officials, the answer is not to cut off aid but to make greater efforts into ensuring it reaches the right target and exposing corruption wherever it occurs. Compiling a register of corruption and naming names would be a useful start. But if the West was to abandon Africa, it would slip further into chaos and disorder. This would neither be in the interest of Africans themselves nor the West.


Washington, D.C.: How much would you attribute Africa's demise or lack of progress (1) to centuries of European colonialism and/or racism where African's resources, including historical artifacts, were taken out of Africa for the sole benefit of Europeans and of the "new world"; (2) to the cold war era politics where again largely European powers, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, stood in the way of any independent minded African leader to ensure complete adherance to their one sided policies; and (3)to incompetent, corrupt African leaders who are allowed to loot their countries' money and resources out of Africa into mostly western banks.

Martin Meredith: Africa's demise has many causes. Almost all African countries are artificial states constructed by European governments during the Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century. In all, some 10,000 African polities were amalgamated into 40 European colonies and protectorates. Colonial rule held them together effectively enough. But with independence, older loyalties and ambitions came thrusting to the fore, often exploited by prominent politicians for their own ends, setting one tribe against another, and resulting in a prolonged era of instability. So the actual construction of African states is one cause of the crisis.

The Cold War certainly added to Africa's difficulties. It precipitated wars, for example, in the Congo; in the Horn of Africa; and in Angola. Western governments were only too willing to prop up tyrants like Mobutu in Zaire for the sake of keeping them within the Western orbit, ignoring the damage they inflicted on their countries.

But the principal cause of Africa's demise is the failure of its leaders to provide effective government. In one country after another, ruling elites have been preoccupied with holding power for the purpose of self-enrichment, not for the advancement of their own people. The patrimonial systems they have used to sustain themselves in power have drained away a huge proportion of state revenues. Unlike other corrupt regimes, in Asia, for example, their loot has not been employed within their own countries but stashed away in foreign bank accounts and foreign property. It is estimated that some 40 per cent of Africa's private wealth is held overseas. This system of corruption and misrule has continued now for more than forty years. Until it is reformed, Africa has little chance of escaping from poverty.


Boston, Mass.: Would it not make sense for the West to concentrate on reforms in South Africa, while encouraging that country to be the leader and role model in Sub-Saharan Africa. It has the raw resources, the infra-structure to a large extent, by far the technical expertise and the relatively mature democratic intitutions.

I think that fellow Africans are more likely to be listen to,than western leaders, and to be an example.However SA has many problems of its own, trying to lift its native masses out of poverty.To do this they will need western help, the alternative will be pressure to become a Zimbabwe. We see those pressures already looming on the horizon.I say try to prevent that,and Pretoria will spread the gospel. Don't you think?

Martin Meredith: South Africa is the most important democracy in Africa and its richest state. So what happens there has global significance. But South has no need for the special kind of attention that the rest of Africa requires from the West. It has an effective system of government; a robust constitution; an independent judiciary; an assertive press; a vigorous civil society; a wealth of mineral resources, a developed infrastructure, a vibrant industrial sector and a tourist industry that attracts millions from around the world each year.

What gives the West cause for concern are aspects of President Mbeki's leadership, notably his grievous mishandling of the AIDS crisis in South Africa and his willingness to shield Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe, in contravention of promises he himself has made to Western governments. Mbeki's failure on both counts makes it more difficult for the West to treat South Africa as a reliable partner in dealing with Africa's crisis.

But however badly Mbeki's actions may have damaged his own reputation, South Africa still stands as a beacon of order, stability and relatively good government. South Africans though need to be vigilant in protecting their own democracy from misrule and corruption rather than trying to sort out the mess elsewhere on the continent.


Washington, D.C.: While perhaps the larger trend of the last half-century of African history is, on a continental basis, a rather depressing read, certainly there must be stories of uplift, development and hope, too. Where might you point, in African history, for someone who's only exposure to the continent is rooted in messages of failure and despair?

Martin Meredith: The greatest hope for Africa is its people. They have shown remarkable resilience and fortitude in the face of decades of misrule and natural disasters. There is nothing wrong with Africa's people, only with their leaders. Given effective leadership, they thrive. There are as many examples of individual courage, compassion and commitment as you will find anywhere else in the world. The task for Africa is to find leaders more interested into the advancement of their own people than in feathering their own nests. A number of success stories - Botswana and post-apartheid South Africa - show what can be achieved.


Roanoke, Va.: It's often said that African nations are unfairly treated in global trade arrangements by the US & the West. It seems to me more likely that most are unable to regulate products to the standards of the West. Your thoughts?

Martin Meredith: African states are treated unfairly by the world's system of trade. Western governments spend as much as $370 billion each year on agricultural subsidies to protect their own farmers wrecking the livelihood of African farmers who are unable to compete against cut-price products like US cotton or Dutch onions or Italian tomatoes. The European Union subsidy for each of its cows is about $900 a year - more than the average African income. The Japanese subsidy is $2,700 per cow. The US provides its 25,000 cotton farmers with an annual subsidy of $4 billion - more than the actual value of the entire crop. US farmers have therefore been able to export cotton at one-third of what it costs them to produce. Over a period of 15 years, they have gained nearly one third of the world market. The world price is estimated to be 25 per cent lower than it would otherwise have been.These are just a few example of the way in which African producers operate at a huge disadvantage. It may accurately be said that in this way Western taxpayers contribute of Africa's poverty.


Austin, Tex.: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf sounds like an impressive woman. Does she stand a reasonable chance of having some success in Liberia?

Martin Meredith: She is indeed an impressive woman. But Liberia is hardly a functioning state. It has suffered from years of civil war and massive corruption. It is bankrupt, dependent on handouts of foreign aid, held together by foreign peacekeepers,lacking even a basic infrastructure of proper roads or electricity supplies. It was heartening to watch the recent election after such a long agony of violence. But in a way it didn't matter much whoever won. For it is far beyond the ability of one individual, however talented to make much headway against such a tide of misfortune.


Arlington, Va.: Paul Theroux contends in "Dark Star Safari" that well-meaning aid and charitable groups have worsened problems in Africa. Would you agree with his belief that the West should leave Africans to find African solutions to their problems, and that intervention by the West can only make the problems in Africa worse?

In particular, what can we do to assist the poor people living in Zimbabwe under the horrifying regime of Robert Mugabe, who has turned the continent's "breadbasket" into its "basket-case"?

Martin Meredith: In some cases,foreign aid has made matters worse. In other cases it has been invaluable in saving lives, raising people out of poverty,providing medical treatment and assisting a host of other worthwhile projects. There's no definitive answer. But in general without foreign aid Africa would be in a far worse state then it already is. Foreign aid, for example, provides more than half of all African governments with more than 50 per cent of the revenue for their annual budgets.The future of Africa, in fact, depends on a constructive collaboration between foreign governments and aid workers and their African counter-parts. There's no other way that most African states can move ahead. But it's still the case that much aid is wasted,poorly directed and occasionally harmful.

As for Robert Mugabe, it provides but one example of an African leader prepared to ruin his country for the sake of holding on to power.There are, sadly, many other examples. The options for dealing with such dictators are always limited. Britain at one time tried megaphone diplomacy with Mugabe, but only made matters infinitely worse. President Mbeki in South Africa had more leverage than any one else over Zimbabwe but instead of confronting Mugabe chose to shield him. Once that had happened, nobody in the West was left with a viable option. Zimbabwe continues its downward slide at a terrifying pace, setting it back decades.

_______________________ Thank you all for joining us today.


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