Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, Benin. Ask Robert Mugabe, Africa’s longest reigning president, about these countries and doubt not he would beam with pride. This is a partial litany of African countries, whose presidents sought third terms in 2015, the year Mugabe chaired the African Union, despite constitutional provisions limiting them to two terms.
To those who defend presidential term-limits, Mugabe, speaking from an African Union podium, had two-word ready-made response – pink noses. Amazingly, his distinguished audience, amongst them a sizeable contingent of African presidents, reacted not with disdain and outrage but suppressed laughter and scattered applause.
Is Africa reverting to the 1980s era of cartoonish dictators? Certainly, the portent, which places Benin, a precursor of Africa’s democratic epiphany in the 1990s, in the same list with perennially genocide-prone Burundi, is not encouraging.
No nation in history rose higher and faster than the Soviet Union did in the three decades between the mid-1920s and mid-1950s. When most African countries gained independence in the 1960s, this trajectory was still in ascendancy, albeit at a slower rate, posing a viable alternative to the dominant model as embodied by the West.
But by the 1970s Africa went on to retain more of the authoritarianism rather than the developmental state of the Soviets. By the 1980s, only a handful of African countries, prominently Botswana and Ivory Coast, both rejecters of the Soviet model, attained the annual four percent GDP growth developmental states would be expected to register for two successive decades. In fact, the norm was for real income to decline below pre-independence levels.
When the wave of democratization swept Africa in the 1990s, an essential base for its sustenance, a militant intellectual class committed to its cause was lacking. Europe had philosophers, pamphleteers, writers, artists, poets, playwrights, who were seriously committed to the cause of their age. It was the moral and intellectual environment established by this creative elite, rather than popular pressure by itself, which eventually enabled the consolidation of democracy.
As exemplified by the backslide from democracy in Egypt after the 2010 revolution though massive peaceful protests are indispensible catalysts, democracy is not possible without an elite committed to its principles. African democracy wavers because of the wavering of its elite due to primeval tribal allegiance, politicized religion and grand corruption. But the dismal state of democracy notwithstanding, the much delayed economic transformation of Africa, thanks in no small part to Western aid, has been on the upswing in recent years. Following, the 2008 US financial meltdown, more than half of the world’s ten fastest growing economies have become African. Even stateless Somalia’s growth rate, no doubt much to the glee of libertarians, is hovering around the magical four percent marker. Jumpstarting the continental economy has at last been successfully accomplished. Only its sustainability remains as the last threshold to be crossed.
While this is indeed welcome news not only to African but also to the world at large, the distortion of its significance, which entangles a nation’s welfare solely or mostly to its economic performance, is in the word of R.H. Tawney, author of the 1920s classic, The Acquisitive Society, “the confusion of the minor department of the life with the whole life.”
No nation has ever been defined by the good and services it produces. No adage has ever been more wrong than “America’s business (in the sense of its national purpose) is business ( in its commercial sense).” A nation is sustained by its spirit and this is an amalgam of its memory of the past and hope for the future. Only on a foundation established by this sentiment – a preserve of writers, poets, artists, politicians, engineers or techno-wizards – is sustainable economic growth – the preserve of scientists, engineers, techno-wizards and business persons – possible.
Africa’s tragedies- the ravages of slavery, the lost years under colonialism, the crippling post-independence malaise- is an untapped reservoir of epic novels, transcendent poems, world-touring plays, thought-provoking essays, new insights into governance and much more. It is to tap into this real-life reservoir, which the rest of the world can only experience vicariously, that Africa is in dire need of intellectual elite, which is passionate about defending the truth, which is universal in spirit, which is wary of convention, which is preoccupied with the pursuit of knowledge, and which is contemptuous of money. Africa’s conscience, the ultimate antidote against tyranny, is waiting to be stirred.
No leader in Africa imagined his role more indispensable than Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, who died pitifully convinced, thanks to the cruel cynicism of the sycophants who surrounded him that he was genius. If Mugabe and his third-term seeking peers are apt to notice, post-Meles Ethiopia is faring no worse than before. No leader in history, let alone a dictator, has ever been indispensable to a nation.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
History shall absolve democracy!
Eskinder Nega, Gulag!
In God I Trust!