Back to website

Opinion - We must all sneer and scoff at the corrupt, cruel jackasses of Africa

Matthew Parris

July 02, 2005

GOD SPARE AFRICA from mercy. God deliver Africa from The Guardian. God protect Africa from the Synod of the Church of England. God send Africa a little less of our charity and understanding, and a little more of our anger and disdain.

Pity poisons the continent when it stifles criticism. As leaders of the G8 gather to discuss aid, they should be pitiless in their resolve to make pariahs of black Africa's cruel and rotten governments. A ruling class of greedy men, sheltered by a popular culture of gawping passivity in the face of political swagger, is suffocating the people of Africa and neither tears nor money nor rock music should be our first response. Rage, not rock, is called for.

This is no counsel of despair. If Africa were hopeless, why even write about it? If the leaders in Africa were all wicked and the led all feeble, then we might as well write off their debts, drop food on them from aeroplanes and turn away.

But the truth is otherwise. Everywhere on the continent there are people making a go of things. Everywhere there is a struggle between energetic self-improvement and an enervating corruption. There are good people and good ideas in African politics, fighting for survival. Across much of the continent the structures of administration are still in place and leaderships know how to work them - too often to line their own pockets. Chains of command and supply, the collection and exchange of information, the imposition of order and taxation may be shaky but they exist. It is not all like Congo where anarchy rules. Most of Africa is not anarchy; it is tyranny.

But tyranny is not a bad place to start. Tyranny can be mended. Kleptocracy can be disinfected. The nuts and bolts of State are there and fitfully the machine can be made to work. "Governance" does not need to be created, but reformed, and there are men and women there capable of doing it.

We should be unequivocally on their side. Yet the invading army of spanking new, top-of-the-range, white, air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruisers and their palefaced, safari-suited occupants sent in by aid agencies and non-governmental organisations, are not on the reformers' side. NGOs and relief workers' instructions are to keep out of politics and engage constructively with the political elite.

Their talents lie far from the world of trade, commerce and industry. They talk more to civil servants than to slaughtermen and metal-beaters. Their thickness on the ground, I notice, is in inverse proportion to their distance from an international airport, European-style supermarket and decent sewage system. Heaven only knows what these well-paid and fashionably sunglassed recruits to "a career in Development" are in Africa for but it is not to bother the political elites. If you work in development in Africa and are not bothering a political elite you have some serious questions to answer about meaning and direction in your life.

We rightly protest at the cavalcades of Mercedes for black governments whose national debts we must now forgive. But perhaps we should remind ourselves that hard men at Toyota, too, have done well out of war and famine in Africa: the development industry grows fat on Africa's failure, and peasant faces pressed to the windows of smart restaurants in Nairobi may make little distinction between the black politicians and the white aid-executives sipping imported Scotch.

I was in the Afar region of Ethiopia this New Year. It was seldom below 40C. At a godforsaken, wind-whipped, rubble-strewn village with no water but a dirty uncovered well where women walked with buckets and rope, I said to my Ethiopian guide: "Why not cover the well, get a windmill and lay a pipe?" "They are waiting for Unicef or an NGO," he said. "But it is too far, too hot for them."

Three observations. First: if erecting a windmill in the Danakil Depression really does require a European relief-worker, what were all those new white Toyotas I saw in Addis Ababa doing there? Secondly: bush windmills are mass-produced in South Africa. They are cheap. The technology is elementary. Should we be flying development officers business class from Europe to do this kind of thing?

Thirdly - and this in essence was what, in a brilliant speech to the International Policy Network in London this week, Thabo Mbeki's brother, Moeletsi Mbeki, was saying - all the elements of a little windmill project were in the village already. There was labour; there was money (the bar was doing a roaring trade, and people were buying and selling livestock); and there was knowledge: people were literate and numerate, there was a primary school, and those who used engines had taught themselves mechanics.

Finally there was demand. Everybody wanted access to clean water. But someone would have to come forward and borrow money; rights of ownership and access would have to be settled; and a framework giving the investor confidence in a return from customers or (more likely) the regional authority was needed too. The windmill itself was secondary to all that: the easiest part.

I am afraid the regional authority was more than a hundred miles away, building itself (with aid money) a huge multistorey office in the middle of a trackless desert.

The Prime Minister's New Partnership for African Development "does not address the fundamental problem", said Mr Mbeki, which is "the enormous power imbalance between the political elite and the key private-sector producers".

Peasants must become freehold owners of their land, he said, and I agree. This nascent class of producers must be empowered to make their work worthwhile and their voices heard. But all across the continent, traditional tribal values, Western-style collectivist ideologies and the greed of political elites have joined in a murderous embrace to stop this.

Of course I am not denying that our shameful barriers to trade must come down too. Nor am I saying (and nor is Mr Mbeki) that nobody working in development in Africa recognises any of this; or that no projects exist to help build an entrepreneurial culture from the ground up. They do; it is commonplace to remark that Africa needs village banks, co-operative societies, book-keeping courses, etc. But the great thrust of development aid - not least the debt relief the G8 are discussing - misses that target by a mile. It is almost the only target worth hitting.

Except this. Swaggering African tyrants stay in power because the small people in Africa passively tolerate, even in some cases sneakingly admire, their leader's greed and rascality. The cult of the Big Man is the tap-root of Africa's suffering. That culture has to change. We can help it to change.

Africa's leaders should be the laughing stock of the world, and ordinary Africans should know it. Where is the satire, where the anger, where the mockery and derision, that these brutal boobies deserve? How many f***s has Bob Geldof directed at their heads rather than ours? Only Alan Coren of this newspaper ever dared to subject an African leader, Idi Amin, to sustained ridicule; and progressive-minded readers in Britain didn't approve.

But it is patronising to think these criminals and crackpots can't help it because they are black. They should be exposed to universal hatred, contempt and ridicule. We should sneer, rail and scoff, as we did at the leaders of apartheid South Africa. The populaces before whom these jackasses puff themselves up should know - as every South African used to know - that they are led by outcasts.

Moeletsi Mbeki was brave this week to compare the struggle against Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe with the struggle against apartheid. Let us tell the people of Africa that in the eyes of all the world, their own leaders are insulting the name and honour of their race.