Every Mother’s Son Listens to the Chief

15. 3. 2017

In the course of two recent decades, impressive economic growth has been observed in Africa. Security and freedom have also increased. However, Africans will still need to wait some time for the arrival of democracy and human rights.

“We are the Bantu people, not admirers of Descartes” explained, in a calm and self-confident tone of voice, Mobutu, the dictator of the former Zaire and today’s Democratic Republic of Congo, to a French TV reporter who in 1970’s dared to ask him a question on political repressions. “The essence of our democracy is that every mother’s son listens to the chief.”

Today, this fragment in a documentary devoted to Mobutu by Belgian director Thierry Michel sends shivers down your spine: we do know now what Mobutu’s image of Africanness was.

The dictator renamed Congo to Zaire, its capital city Leopoldville to Kinshasa and his Christian name Joseph to Sese Seko Kuku Ngbeandu wa Za Banga. In a free translation this stands for: “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” Surrounded by a camarilla of nodding courtiers, he would spend fortunes for residences in Europe, marble palaces and dozens of tailored operetta uniforms.

He learnt Machiavelli’s “Prince” by heart. The whole nation danced on the birthday party of the chief, whereas his propaganda team compared him to an African Christ and spread slogans taken from a “Mobutism” handbook throughout the country, which contained the chief’s words of wisdom. A proud owner of the country and its riches, he gathered a fortune bigger than the foreign debt of Zaire; meantime, rust would gradually eat away the rails constructed by the Belgians and the jungle devoured the roads. Back then, the president funded his own programme of space exploration. He even installed a genuine nuclear reactor, which is padlocked today, in Kinshasa. Police and administration competed with each other to steal state possessions; the monstrous system of corruption reached a limit never seen before. There was not even a budget because, if necessary, Mobutu would simply have more banknotes printed in a foreign land. Only the security service operated well and so the discontented vanished without a trace. Occasionally their bodies were fished out of the Congo River. By the way, the river, similarly to the whole state, was renamed by Mobutu to Zaire as well.

The Dictator’s Handbook

All those atrocities, from the European perspective so seemingly barbaric and surreal, in fact overshadow the rational nature of African politics. By Africa I am referring to the land South of Sahara and not to the Arab world, with its own rules of the game. Mobutu was a gangster, but at the same time he was an extraordinarily rational politician. It’s just that it does happen—and Europeans seem to have forgotten about it—that in certain circumstances a rational politician can turn into a gangster.

Published in 2011 by two American political scientists, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, the well-known “Dictator’s Handbook” contains the brutal anatomy of politics—not only in Africa, but also politics in general. The authors picked up this motto, a quotation attributable to Mobutu: “What is important here is cash. [A] leader needs money, gold and diamonds to run his hundred castles, feed his thousand women, buy cars for the millions of boot-lickers under his heels, reinforce the loyal military forces and still have enough change left to deposit into his numbered Swiss accounts.”

Principles underlying this rule are the same in the case of blood thirsty dictators and nice and cultured democratic politicians. According to the authors: “First, politics is about getting and keeping political power. It is not about the general welfare of ‘We, the people.’ Or, ‘It’s best when your political survival depends on possibly few people who enable you to achieve and keep your position.’” This means that dictators, dependent on a small group of collaborators, frequently hold on to power for decades, passing away in their own beds in the end. Under democracy, politicians don’t stay in power for so long.

But let’s get rid of sentiment and take a closer look at the interest of the leaders. In the words of De Mesquita and Smith: “One important lesson we will learn is that where politics are concerned, ideology, nationality, and culture don’t matter all that much. The sooner we learn not to think or utter sentences such as ‘the United States should do…’ or ‘the American people want…’ or ‘China’s government ought to do…,’ the better we will understand government, business, and all other forms of organization. When addressing politics, we must get used to thinking and speaking about the actions and interests of specific, named leaders rather than thinking and talking about fuzzy ideas like the national interest, the common good, and the general welfare.”

The Union: Gives and Takes away

Now, let’s abandon sentiment and concentrate on European-African relations. The European Union’s discourse contains frequent references to its civilization mission—even if those words are not used directly. After all, the very phrase has some colonial undertones. In fact, the goal is the same. Europe wants to spread democracy, human rights and the free market, believing Africa south of the Sahara is, for many reasons, one of the most crucial areas where those ideas should be popularized. Far more eagerly, universal values are quoted here instead of “European values” which—against the backdrop of what Europeans used to do in Africa not so long ago and which has left far stronger traces in the local memory— sound quite ambiguous.

The European Union contributes over half of global development aid and even the current crisis notwithstanding, it is not going to decrease its funding in the near future. Between 2007– 2013 the European Commission will have spent in African, Caribbean and Pacific states, through the European Development Fund, as much as 22.7 billion euro. Under the 2014–2020 EU budget, 51 billion euro is allocated to development aid. And this is just 20 per cent of European aid since the rest is granted by means of bilateral cooperation.

Even if you accept the estimates by AidWatch, as much as 14 per cent of European aid, amounting to 7.35 billion euro, has not reached developing countries but stayed within the donor-states in the form of remuneration, contracts etc. Still, the amount is quite astounding. For this money, Europe not only buys itself a sense of self-content, but also tangible influence. Development aid constitutes a powerful lever: 500 million dollars promised in 2012 to Malawi equals 40 per cent of this state’s budget- a trifle really. And mind you, this is one of the poorest states in the world which is frequently struck by famine. Accordingly, when the government of Malawi does something nasty in the eyes of West then the latter simply discontinues the aid as was the case when President Bingu wa Mutharika passed laws violating human rights several years ago. The new president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, not only amended regulations but she also agreed to numerous economic requirements including the liberalization of fuel, energy and water prices. For citizens, this meant price increases by several dozen per cent. However, as a result of the actions taken, funding was gradually and slowly reinstated.

Western expectations towards Africans have been changing though in accordance with the political climate in Europe. While back in the 1960’s the West recommended central planning and investment, now pressures is on democratization and economic liberalization, accompanied by environmental requirements. No wonder then that African elites frequently interpret the situation as a European dictate irrespective of what the intentions of the West are. When Ethiopia embarked on the construction of a giant dam, Gibe III on the Omo River, which inevitably meant destruction of a unique ecosystem, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said to the protesting conservationists: ”they don’t want to see developed Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as a museum.” And Africans don’t like being sermonized. They often believe that the solutions created on desks in Paris, London or Brussels simply don’t account for local realities.

Democracy of a Discipline

Obviously, rejecting Western recipes is ambiguous. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame can be proud to have helped it back to its feet after gruesome genocide and transformed the country into one of the most rapidly developing and least corrupt African states. At the same time, he is a dictator who is not willing to lose power and does not refrain from using violence. However, the violence he applies is used in very conscious and precise proportions. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni most probably envisages his political role analogically. He achieved power 25 years ago when the country was in disastrous condition. It might be too much to say he led the country to a boom but he did trigger rapid and stable growth amounting to a regular increase of several per cent GDP a year. Perhaps Kagame and Museveni really believe that their countries are not yet grown-up enough to have a multi-party democratic system based on the Western model, and that any attempt to introduce such a system would bring about a return of corruption and tribal violence.

Museveni is obviously right in thinking that his country needed him. Between 1985 and 2010 the HDI (a UN-calculated indicator combining average life expectancy, access to education and income) for Uganda went up by 53 per cent. Museveni does not murder opposition figures, or at least not on a mass scale, yet during protests after a successful re-election in 2011, police killed 10 people and detained hundreds. “I am for democracy, but my democracy is a democracy of discipline,” announced Museveni later on.

No wonder then that China seems an increasingly attractive partner. African elites are convinced that Western recipes for growth and development, implemented for the last several dozen years, failed whereas the development aid brought dependence instead of well-being. From this angle, China appears to be the country which overcame its backwardness all by itself. Often, against Western advice, it protected and supported its own market and industry, in contradiction to the liberal model.

Many representatives of the African elite dream of being the second coming of the Asian miracle. “We are 20 years behind China,” said an Ethiopian bureaucrat, “and we’re trying to do what they did to get where they are,” to an Italian political scientist from the University of Trento, Elsje Fourie, who has been exploring the development of East African states. “In my head, I’ve got practically everything mapped out—if you give me 10 years, I will give you South Korea,” proclaimed one Kenyan technocrat.

According to Fourie, many Africans believe the Asian development model is easier to enforce and more suitable to local circumstances than the Western one, which they perceive as “slow, distant and academic.” After all, there is no denying that China advanced from one of the poorest world’s states to the top of the league in the course of just one generation. Why should the Africans not repeat this success?

And such hope is clearly seen in the governments’ development plans. In Kenya and Ethiopia, they are based on the experience of Malaysia and Singapore. All advisers in the Ethiopian government’s planning committee originated from Asia. Indeed, in the learning materials published by the Ethiopian governing party you can find Taiwan, Korea and China as role-models for a state intervention in economy.

The Chinese Model

What does the “Chinese Model” translated into African realities mean? Firstly, you shouldn’t allow for excessively chatty democracy: the nation should be united under one, strong leadership. The latter sounds very attractive to any politician in any country. Secondly, a state must spend money not on social welfare but on large investments into infrastructure, including roads, bridges and power plants.

Under this new model, a state may interfere in the economy with a view to protect local enterprises from foreign competition—until the local entities are strong enough to manage on their own and generate profits from export. A solution to African poverty should be a “leap forward” in the form of double-digit economic growth and modern technologies. This project is still embryonic but there are signs indicating that it’s working. For example in Ethiopia, rapid economic growth has been observed for many years and in the largest cities new local industrial enterprises are emerging, which in this once and currently agricultural country, is a real turning point.

The logic behind African politics has been dramatically changed. In the 1970’s due to instability, the Cold War and other circumstances, a rationally-thinking politician would be pushed towards kleptocracy and dictatorship. Today, the same rational politician leans toward constructing roads with Chinese money and speak about attracting Western investments or export growth. And it does not really matter that he would demand appropriate fees for all the transactions—after all, it would still be important for him for the projects to be finalized. Also, Asian sates used to be considerably corrupt. Even today China has a very low position on the Transparency International ranking. Apparently, corruption does not necessarily inhibit rapid economic growth.

Take the following factors: the increased stability of African governments after several decades since achieving independence; the end of Cold War triggered conflicts; the demand for resources; the partly democratic elections; as well as education of their own deep-rooted elites. They all motivate a rationally-thinking African politician not to think in terms of their Swiss bank accounts, but rather to take care of economic growth and cutting coupons accordingly.

A high-profile American economist Mancur Olson in his already classic book “Power and Prosperity” published in 2000, distinguished two models of autocratic governance. Under both of them the rulers strive to get out as many resources as possible from their subjects. A “mobile bandit” or a “roving bandit” is never sure of his power and security. He doesn’t know how long he is going to stay in power. Therefore, he is interested in taking as much as possible in the shortest possible time. It pays off to violate, rob, burn and bring destruction to the country because his future is not important to him. On the other hand, a “stationary bandit” is an autocrat who feels safe sitting firmly in the saddle. As a result, he has an incentive to get as much as he can, but at the same time he understands that this means investing more in the country and inhibiting his plundering instincts. He is not doing this because of some higher ideals but in his own enlightened long-term self-interest.

“A surprising proportion of the progress of humanity is due to the incentive for roving bandit leaders to settle down and become rulers.” Olson wrote and we have seen this happen in the major of Africa in the course of the last two decades. This has already led to impressive economic growth, increased security and safety. Still, in the near future we shouldn’t count on the arrival of democracy and human rights in the Western sense.

Adam Leszczyński

Adam Leszczyński is a columnist, reporter and historian; assistant professor at the Institute for Political Studies of Polish Academy of Sciences and a journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza. He has authored two history monographs on the Polish People’s Republic, as well as two books devoted to Africa. In 2012 his new book was published entitled “Dziękujemy za palenie. Dlaczego Afryka nie może sobie poradzić z przemocą, głodem, wyzyskiem i AIDS” (“Thank You for Smoking, or why Africa Cannot Handle Violence, Famine, Exploitation and AIDS”).

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