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Neoliberalism and Africa’s Development

By Ronald Elly Wanda

Monday, August 24, 2020.

In early 2002, I spent a few months on a research trip to Sousse, a southern Tunisian town about a hundred miles off the capital Tunis. It was immediately after the twin tower bombings of the World Trade Centre in New York, and understandably the mood was as elsewhere in the Arab world pretty tense. At the time, the US and the UK were also preparing to initiate the war against Iraq. It was a time of debate about the morality of such an involvement. It was also a time of opinions, heart-felt and strong enough. The Economist, an influential British weekly journal presented Africa in its cover as “The Hopeless Continent.” Upon my return back to London, like most of my undergraduate brigade, I joined the dramatic street demonstrations against what we saw as a wanton Bush and Blair war. 

Two decades later, none of us envisaged the significance of the ‘little’ debates we had in hotel bars and cafes in downtown streets of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, about how volatile and politically stagnant the region was, would come to be disproved and at a pace none of us imagined. It took the life of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire outside the governor’s office in the town of Sidi Bouzid while protesting at police harassment, bribery and corruption to unwittingly ignite the multinational protest movement also known as the ‘Arab Spring’ that has since rehabilitated the political landscape of north Africa. 

To date, the callous treatment of Bouazizi continues to strike a chord with millions of Africans, tired of living under corrupt autocratic regimes. For instance, as recent as August 2020, the Malian military led by a 25-year-old colonel ejected their civilian government following two months of street protests against the government. The military takeover unfolded amid deteriorating security conditions and a pervasive malaise about the government’s corruption and indifference. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who came to power in the country’s 2013 elections, is said to have dragged his feet in implementing a 2015 peace accord and was perceived by many Malians as promoting his family members to state positions and benefiting personally from international financial flows into the country.

Here at home, many Kenyans owing to a catalogue of bad experience, generally acknowledge that those holding state powers have done so much wrong in the name of doing right. Whereas, in 2020, the GDP growth stands at a paltry 1.5 percent owing to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the country has attracted praises from the World Bank in the recent past for its strong economic growth that led to a “reduction in poverty”. World Bank figures show that the poverty headcount rate declined from 43.7 percent in 2006 to 36.8 percent in 2015 (latest data) while GDP growth averaged 5.7 percent between 2013 and 2018, at 1.9 percentage points higher than the average for Sub-Saharan African countries (of 3.8 percent). Yet in spite of all these economic “gains”, the average Kenyan still feels hivi-hivi (disheveled) about the progress. 

Our transitional predicament obliges us to try and understand these local hivi-hivi preoccupations in their larger historical setting. To begin with, while the whole structure of the country’s 2010 Constitution emphasises the importance of public life being governed by an organic body of humane norms and values, the state has enabled powerful individuals in politics, security, civil service and business, institutions, companies and groups to influence the country’s policies, legal environment and economy to benefit their private interests – a situation that has had adverse effects on the quality and provision of public services. In a report commissioned by the country’s human rights commission, political scholar Patrick Asingo rightly linked the exacerbation of Kenya’s problems to the concept of the deep state, a situation in which every action within the political schema further stimulates the machine of corruption. Needless to say, state capture has had profound implications for the consolidation of democracy, systematically eroding democratic processes by undermining the election of public representatives, the institutionalisation and normalisation of democracy and the socioeconomic transformation processes in Kenya.

Financial Sharks

The Kenyan situation aside, it is fair to point out that the calamities that bedevil the continent at the present moment are a continuation of the policies of the past which African leaders, under neo-colonialism, have continued to pursue. Looking back, even the little ‘nationalism that most African leaders reflected in the ‘Lagos Plan of Action’ and the ‘Abuja Treaty’, were abandoned in favour of now discredited Structural Adjustment Program (SAPs) that were initiated by the World Bank in the 1980s.  African leaders collectively abandoned what had been emerging as a continental agenda that would have brought meaningful development across Africa.  Instead it was the World Bank sponsored ‘adjustments’ that led to the denationalizations, privatizations and liberalizations of the African economies that exposed communities across Africa to new financial sharks in an ogre of ‘financialization,’ in which the African leadership begun to participate by heightened corruption, which drained the continent not only of the financial resource but also of the brains in what came to be called the ‘brain drain’. 

Reinventing ‘Hope’

In order to thwart the “Hopelessness” misconception portrayed by The Economist, the current socio-economic and social-political deficits on the continent must therefore be faced squarely and their origins recognised if indeed we have to move towards a new way of understanding the impacts of our role in continental as well as global issues.  It is indeed important to acknowledge that it is through epochs that we produce the contours and directions of our thoughts and actions as well as the orientations and epistemes, which fashion the way we look at the past and relate it to the future through the present. That said, it has always been the position of the progressive Pan-Africanist that freedom and emancipation of Africa are tied to the unification of the peoples of Africa. This position first outlined by Kwame Nkrumah in the book, ‘Africa Must Unite’ is still fresh many decades later in the midst of a changing world. 

Africa today is trailing the rest of the world because in part the African leadership has failed to mobilize communities along the lines of a Pan-African agenda that informed the earlier phases of our political development. This is due to its weak ideological base, which instead of drawing from our rich cultural heritage is instead wedded to Western ways of knowing and doing things without questioning. While these external interventions have added to Africa’s modern culture in what Nkrumah called a ‘triple heritage,’ it has also left a negative impact on African intellectual capacity to think independently unlike, say, the Asian intellectuals and political leaders who have managed to retain strong linkages to their traditions and cultures. 

Given our present situation, what does it mean to take seriously the thought that cultural politics and questions of culture, of discourse, and of metaphor are absolutely deadly political questions? My argument is that it is so.  Indeed one other reason why Africa is trailing other regions is that the current crop of its leadership has managed to corrupt the very idea of ‘nation-building’ that was the song of the first generation of African leaders by creating political divisions based on ‘tribal’ differences, which were very much the creation of colonial ‘divide and rule’ ideologies of the imperialist powers. The current political elites in Africa have bought into this ideology to their advantage, a heritage that has led to ethnic-cleaning and even genocides. In my view, we cannot continue to blame these calamities on foreign forces alone. African political and economic elites continue to play an active role as agents in calamities that have bedeviled our continent.  They have always blamed these problems on the ‘colonialists’ and ‘imperialists’ while at the same time playing the role of executioners of our own communities.

A cursory look at the political condition in Africa today reveals four types of regimes that are dominant as far as the state is concerned. First, a few countries including Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Mauritius and Namibia could be classified as liberal democracies with stable and consolidating democratic frameworks. Second, the majority of countries could be classified as electoral democracies whose democratic credentials are stronger in relation to the holding of regular elections while in between and beyond elections they suffer enormous democratic deficits. Such countries include Nigeria, Niger Republic, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Third, few countries fall within the 'fuzzy' category that scholars have referred to variously as grey zone democracy, ambiguous democracy, pseudo-democracy, virtual democracy, electoral authoritarianism or liberalized autocracy. Countries in this category have embraced the political culture of regular multiparty elections. The fairness and freeness of the electoral contest is often questionable. The electoral governance does not ensure procedural certainty and substantive uncertainty. Under this condition, the election becomes a façade behind which authoritarianism thrives. Zimbabwe and Kenya fall under this category. Fourth, some of these countries are affected by dictatorship, authoritarianism, closed authoritarianism or unreformed autocracy. These are countries that have not yet undergone political transition to multiparty democracy. Some of them are Libya, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Swaziland.

Rebuilding Africa’s Memory

On a hopeful note, Africa appears to be in a transitional political and intellectual stage of reforming the ‘new’ Africa to the ‘old’ Africa. Central to this process of reformation is going to be changing Africans’ intellectual and psychosocial conditions, which include the educational system, intellectual attitudes, and modes of thinking to begin to appreciate Africa’s traditions. This “struggle” on the part of the scholar will have to involve a process of unlearning and relearning because of the biased Eurocentric approaches that have dominated thinking whilst at the same time corroding Africa’s cultural memory. In his 2009 book Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, the eminent Kenyan writer and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o, rightly argued that ‘the question of memory in Africa may not only explain what ails contemporary Africa but it may also contain the seeds of communal renewal and self-confidence’. Memory ‘resurrects’, ‘re-cycles’, and makes the past ‘reappear’ and live again in the present. What this means is that entire nations, like individuals, constitute and reconstitute themselves through the constant editing and re-editing of memory. Indeed, the importance of memory as a source of knowledge cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to its ability not only to shape opinions but to influence the course of history.

Thiong’o in a way raises a fundamental question concerning the role in society of ‘organic’ academics or civil society organisations engaged in some form of intellectual and or society intervention activities. Our role as such, must go beyond policy engagements to promote the interests of the marginalised and poverty-stricken citizens across Africa. It must involve a process of unlearning and learning not only of the disempowered masses but also of the disoriented intellectuals who have been alienated from their cultures and heritages by Western culture, education and material inducements. This is what accounts for the widening gap between the African elites or intellectuals and the masses of the people for what is the real missing link in Africa’s transformation-the distance between the African masses and the African intellectuals. 

Way Forward

In spite of the remaining challenges, there are many signs of progress right across Africa. Since the beginning of 2015, Africa has experienced more than 28 leadership changes, highlighting the continent-wide push for greater accountability and democracy. Countries like Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde, Namibia, and Ghana rank relatively high as politically stable, democratic countries. These countries, as well as other rising democracies across Africa, serve as encouragement to international partners that stability can be achieved throughout the continent. When it comes to public health, the continent has seen significant improvements over the past several decades. There have been substantial declines in maternal and child deaths, and the incidence of chronic malnutrition among children under five has decreased by almost 10 percentage points since 1995. Also, various sources indicate that the share of people living in extreme poverty in Africa has declined over the past few decades, and for most African countries, the outlook for poverty reduction appears positive. 

The Way Forward for Africa will as such entail going beyond the current neo-liberal global agenda by moving towards an African agenda for social and economic transformation of the continent. It is important to note that much of Africa’s progress has been fueled by neo-liberal agendas and policies. Neo-liberalism is an economic and political ideology in which market capitalism is hailed as the most effective way to achieve modernization, development, and prosperity for all. Its three major tenets are privatization, free markets, and deregulation. Through this system, African communities have suffered untold pain through exploitation by big corporations and the mafia, which act in consort to help themselves to Africa’s cheap and more-or-less free natural and human resources. In most cases, the exploitation is done with the help of the African leadership, under the aegis of a lop-sided ‘globalisation.’ Needless to say, the transformation process in Africa must encompass both the African intellectual and the African masses through learning and unlearning processes.

Roland Elly Wanda is a scholar and the director of Grundtvig Africa House – (GAHO), Nairobi, Kenya. 

Image by (c) Shola Adenekan

Neoliberalism and Africa’s Development

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