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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Mediocrity of African Leadership

By Richard Dowden (TIME)
Africa's colonial history has left its rulers shy of external scrutiny, so an international gathering of political and business leaders in Cape Town from June 4-6 seemed to promise little more than platitudes. The annual meetings of the World Economic Forum for Africa have often conveyed the impression that Africa's only problem is its image. Rebrand the continent as a success, the message goes, and all will be well. But this year the rising cost of food, Africa's energy deficiency and its projected failure to meet the Millennium Development Goals forced a deeper conclusion: Africa has a serious leadership deficiency. A new wave of ambitious, critical and perhaps more open politicians are clamoring for change.

The shift in tone was clear from the opening session, which featured a clutch of politicians more used to public deference. Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and John Kuffour of Ghana are close to stepping down, and their power is waning. They were joined on the podium by Raila Odinga, who has fought the political establishment from birth, and in March was appointed Prime Minister of Kenya following a disputed election. Odinga laid into his fellow leaders for keeping quiet about another disputed election earlier this year — for Zimbabwe's presidency. Robert Mugabe, the incumbent widely believed to have been defeated, has not yet released the results.
Odinga also blamed the continent's ethnic conflicts on the "mediocrity of African leadership." Even the mild-mannered President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, struck a sharp note, hitting out at the practice, still widespread among African men, of taking multiple wives and siring hordes of children. Jacob Zuma, tipped to be the next President of South Africa, listened calmly. He boasts four wives and at least 18 children.
For some participants, the focus on Africa's — and their own — failings was distinctly uncomfortable. Malawi's President, Bingu wa Mutharika, urged African leaders to learn to share power with political opponents — notwithstanding the fact that he recently arrested six opposition party members. Mbeki, a focus for criticism about the failure to deal with the crisis in Zimbabwe, blandly insisted that most of Africa was "evolving well."
Hopes that Zuma might provide stronger leadership on pivotal issues for the continent were not boosted by his performance at the conference. He called food prices "a time bomb" that governments could do little about — a limp response when 30 million Africans face hardship if more food is not grown and sold at affordable prices.
But the crisis also brings with it an opportunity — for Africa to grow and sell more food for domestic consumption and export. Namanga Ngongi, president of the Nairobi-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, told delegates that Africa could follow Asia's example and achieve a dramatic increase in agricultural output. That's true, but only 4% of national budgets are currently spent on agriculture, and investment is hampered by precolonial land rights that still prevail in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile the cost of fertilizer has risen even more dramatically than the cost of fuel, leaving farmers facing a triple whammy: oil- and food-price rises, plus a lack of credit. Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian businessman and Africa's richest man, said small farmers are not supported by governments. "Farmers would have to grow gold" to make a profit, he commented.
Nobody disagreed. There's wide recognition that more investment, fertilizer, better strains of seeds and better storage and transport are all essential to Africa's subsistence farmers. Yet in Africa, there's a perennial gap between knowing what needs to be done and doing it. China's venture into Africa has raised interest in business opportunities there. But many prospective investors are still put off by poor infrastructure. Several African countries, including South Africa, endure daily power cuts because of inadequate generating capacity.
Governments have let such problems persist. Africa's burgeoning middle class may prove less patient. At the Cape Town meeting, members of this class expressed a common vision of what needs to be done — and a sense of urgency, too. In the past, entrepreneurs and other professionals largely avoided politics. Now they are increasingly influencing policy and demanding better leadership. Their impact, and their importance to Africa’s future, hasn’t gone unnoticed. A European delegate with substantial African interests was asked which African investments he'd recommend. He replied: "Anything that supports the new middle class."

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society. His book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, will be published in September

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