George Ayittey* — The election of Senator Barrack Obama brought jubilation across Africa, where millions celebrated him as “one of their own.” His election victory shattered myths about America and caused some discomfort among Africa’s gang of “hippos” – the nasty, ornery and unrepentant hard-knocks. Wedded to seats of power, not even bulldozers can dislodge them. “No African head of state should be in power for more than 10 years,” declared President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda in 1986. He is still president.
Ferociously resistant to change, they would have crushed an Obama who dared challenge their iron grip on power. They would have tossed him into jail the night before the elections (Rwanda); mercilessly bludgeoned him (Zimbabwe); thuggishly annulled his election victory (Nigeria); or threatened to feed him to crocodiles (Malawi).
Their security forces would have opened fire on Obama’s supporters, killing over 250 and hauling over thousand into jail (Ethiopia). Even in his own father’s country, Kenya, his victory would have been stolen, his supporters used for target practice by the police, where recent elections sparked violence that claimed over 1,000 people and dislocated more than 250,000. Municipal elections on November 29 in Jos, Nigeria, have claimed the lives of more than 400 people.
Such is the state of “elections” on a broken and dysfunctional continent of shattered dreams and unfulfilled promises. Immensely rich in mineral resources, it is mired in grinding poverty, social destitution and humanitarian crises. It has been reduced to a wasteland by marauding hippos — in Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe — enabling vulture mercantilist countries to pick with chopsticks dexterity a platinum from Zimbabwe, oil from Sudan, col-tan from Congo, and bauxite from Guinea, all to the detriment and impoverishment of their people.
In much of officialdom, common sense is on vacation while arrogant tomfoolery rampages with impunity. The rule of law is a farce: Bandits are in charge and their victims are in jail. The police are highway robbers and soldiers protect not the people, but the crooks in power. Rape serves as a political weapon in Congo, and Sudan (Darfur), whose president, Omar el-Beshir, has been indicted by the International Crimes Commission for crimes against humanity.
“Government” doesn’t care about the people, let alone provide them with basic social services (clean water, electricity or health). In fact, the role of government is not to serve but to fleece the people. It has been hijacked by a cabal of gangsters, who use the state machinery to enrich themselves, their cronies and tribesmen. The richest in Africa are heads of state and ministers. Says a tribal chief: “Here in Lesotho, we have two problems: Rats and the government.”
Between 1970 and 2004, more than $450 billion in oil revenue flowed into the coffers of Nigeria’s governments but $412 billion was looted by Nigeria’s military thugs. Even the little that was recovered by the Obasanjo regime in 1999 was immediately re-looted! Lagos, the commercial capital lacks reliable supplies of electricity and water. The country can’t feed itself, spending $3 billion annually to import food it could grow itself. Yet, it is spending $89 million to build a Space Center!
To be sure, there are bright spots in Africa where countries are well governed: Benin, Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, South Africa among others. But they are pitifully few. The vast majority of Africans still labor under vapid repression and mismanagement – their struggle for freedom from white colonial rule perfidiously betrayed. Independence was in name only: One set of masters (white colonialists) was replaced by another set – a disgusting assortment of black neo-colonialists, Swiss bank socialists, crocodile liberators, and crackpot revolutionaries — while the oppression and exploitation of the African people continued unabated. Such leadership is a far cry from the traditional leadership Africa has known for centuries.
These hippos have left a trail of wanton destruction, gratuitous mayhem and human debris in their wake. Since 1960, more people (over 16 million) have died than were snatched from Africa during the West African slave trade (operated by Europeans) and the East African counterpart (organized by Arabs). In Congo alone, more than 5 million have died since 1996 and over 4 million in Sudan. Hippos kill more people in Africa annually than any other wild animal.
For decades, the U.S. and the international community served as unwitting enablers – faithfully cleaning up the mess and dispensing band-aids to the victims: Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe, etc. Political correctness shielded Africa’s brutal despots. Burdened by guilt over the iniquities of colonialism, Westerners were reluctant to criticize them – for fear of being labeled “racist.” As a result, the root causes of Africa’s crises were seldom addressed. These have little to do with racism, colonialism, American imperialism or artificial colonial borders. They are more about power, pure and simple. Zimbabwe and the plethora of failed African states would have been saved had their leaders been willing to relinquish or share political power. Without new leadership and genuine reform, more African countries will implode. But reform or change is anathema to Africa’s hippos:
Africa’s reform process has been stalled by contumacious chicanery, willful deception, and strong-arm tactics. Only 16 out of the 54 African countries are democratic and fewer than 8 African countries are “economic success stories.” Intellectual freedom remains in the Stalinist era: only 8 African countries have a free and independent media.
The incoming Obama administration should not coddle Africa’s hippos, nor should it put up with their vaunted acrobatics. These hippos need tough and blunt talk. Accordingly, Obama needs to revamp US-Africa policy to center around the following postulates:
Give Africans these institutions and they themselves will do the rest of the job of cleaning up the continent.
Finally Obama might consider following Nelson Mandela’s example and serve only one term in office. This will send a powerful message to Africa’s long-standing despots. The obsession with power is what has ruined Africa.
* George Ayittey, a native of Ghana, is a Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation. He is the author of Africa Unchained (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2005) and Indigenous African Institutions (Transnational Publishers, 2006).