Africa’s Current Malaise - Author: Mohamed Taha, November 16 2016 - In 2002, Ali Mazrui attempted to answer a critical question: Who killed African democracy?

“The cultural half-caste who came in from Western schools and did not adequately respect African ancestors. Institutions were inaugurated without reference to cultural compatibilities, and new processes were introduced without respect for continuities. Ancestral standards of property, propriety and legitimacy were ignored.” Ali A. Mazrui

In fact, Mazrui asserted Africa’s current predicament as the “first home of mankind, yet the last to be made truly habitable in contemporary world as a result of poverty and underdevelopment.”

Paradoxically, the African continent is endowed with blessings of sizeable magnitude. It is larger in size and more bestowed with natural resources than the combined geographies of the United States, Europe, and China. Nevertheless, sheer survival is a daily struggle for most Africans. In fact, Postcolonial Sub-Saharan Africa has been characterized by social divisions, institutional flaws, and power imbalances over the past five decades. More particularly, the 1980s and 1990’s were periods in which greater challenges to stability and progress have been experienced.  Governments in sub-Saharan Africa have often been seized by powerful and wealthy elites who are institutionally biased against the masses. Structural disincentives for officials to follow formal rules, along with established norms reinforcing behaviors that work against the interests of the average citizen, have been an entrenched attribute of such contexts. The net result is that governments are indulged in immoral conduct, evidenced by how commercial licenses are distributed, laws are interpreted, public funds are disbursed, and so on. Such a conduct creates a state of governance myopia such that leaders seldom feel it is their responsibility to develop their country and improve the lives of its citizens. This has resulted in large-scale territorial disputes and armed conflict. Often times, violence and the complete collapse of governments with unsurmountable challenges to peace, security and stability was an evitable outcome.

Colonial Roots of Poor Governance

The seeds of the creation of the current situation of highly corrupt African nations can be partly attributed to the colonial era over a hundred years ago. The artificial borders of what is known as Africa’s sovereign states today started with the scramble of Berlin Conference in 1884-1885. Called for by Portugal, hosted by Otto von Bismarck and attended by twelve European states along with the United States and the Ottoman Empire; the conference marshalled over six decades of intense colonial activity by European powers. The post-colonial outcome was the elimination of indigenous forms of African autonomy and self-governance and the fragmented geography that is witnessed today. The period preceding the conference was characterized by heightened imperial competition and is best described by Lord Salisbury: “When I left the Foreign Office in 1880, nobody thought about Africa. When I returned to it in 1885, the Nations of Europe were almost quarreling with each other as to the various portions of Africa which they could obtain.” The saga continued after the colonialists left as African countries inherited profoundly corrupt institutions, laws and values from colonial governments. The majority of African former colonies witnessed a centralization of political, economic and civic power by the colonial elites. This has been accompanied with exclusivity in hoarding senior level jobs in the public and private sectors, and particularly in education to fellow colonials. Naturally, key institutions, where these jobs resided, such as the judiciary, police, security services, discriminately served the interests of the elite classes. The private sector under the colonial era served the imperial markets by exclusively exporting to them, hence was largely dependent on the colonial governments for licensing, contracts and subsidies.


The Elites and the Continuing legacy of Colonialism


Political leadership in Africa was accurately described by Ruth First in her book The Barrel of a Gun: "There has been eloquent, inexhaustible talk in Africa about politics, side by side with the gaping poverty of political thought. Down there on the ground in Africa, you can smother in the small talk of politics. Mostly it is about politicking, rarely about policies. Politicians are men who compete with each other for power, not men who use power to confront their country's problems."



In the postcolonial era, the colonial elites were replaced by the elites who led the liberation movements; the dominant independence leader and struggle families, typically in the form of dominant ethnic or sectarian group often turned into a political faction. Such independence movements were often organized in a centralized fashion whereby a leader along with his political, regional or ethno-sectarian faction was constantly dominant and held the upper hand. The dominant structural character of these movements allowed them to closely fit into a similar centralized political culture very much like the colonial administrations that they replaced.



The newly acquired state bureaucracy, including the military, judiciary, and nationalized private industries were managed by elites who often had a profound sense of entitlement in terms of rewards for the independence struggle. In many instances the process becomes opaque in terms of its accountability with the “struggle elites” engaging in patronage. This has resulted in jobs, government contracts, as well as newly nationalized private companies handed to political allies, affiliate ethnic groups or regional interests. The idea of merit-based appointments was often overlooked by giving jobs to members of the same ethnic group, faction or region. This also entailed that economic development programs launched by the ruling elites to transform the colonial economy had insignificant reform impacts due to the fact that unqualified followers were managing key public institutions. Moreover, scarce resources were being crudely diverted to close allies, including family and friends. Appointments in key institutions such as judiciary, the police, and the media; institutions that typically scrutinize as well as hold rulers to account became increasingly occupied by liberation elite loyalists. Already corrupt under colonialism, such institutions continued to be mismanaged by new allies who were unlikely to hold the rulers to account, given their patronage to the ruling elites. Such arrangements continue to exist today in many African countries.


Meddling of Bretton Woods and the Dysfunction of Market Economies



The 1980s have been characterized by pressure from Western powers, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund through structural adjustment reforms as well as other instruments such as privatizing state enterprises in many African countries. Dubbed as the “Washington Consensus”, these policies failed to stimulate growth. They increased poverty, exacerbated inequalities, and deepened economic insecurity. Intensely criticized by Joseph Stiglitz, he described these policies as follows: “there is an emerging consensus that the Washington Consensus was not only faulty in its narrow economic strategies, but also excessively narrow in its objectives.” On the domestic front, the pressure to privatize led liberation movement elites to devise sale schemes of state assets to allies and affiliates of these elites. Looking at the essence of these structural adjustment policies in terms of their overall effect on socioeconomic progress, the argument is valid that the way they got implemented required developing countries to reduce spending on high priorities such as health, education and infrastructure development, while debt repayment and other economic policies became a monumental priority. 


The private sector in the postcolonial era in many African states was usually compliant and unlikely to engage in demand for accountability from national governments, as private sector companies were constantly threatened of having their businesses nationalized by the new rulers. In many instances, liberation and independence movement elites in rule adopted policies of creating a capitalist class or new indigenous business owners, as well as self-serving programs. In many such instances, political capital is leveraged as the cornerstone for such approaches and hence supports the creation of indigenous capitalists. Such schemes resulted in political leaders acquiring shareholdings in newly privatized public companies, and getting state bids to supply services for government, or get stakes of private companies owned by former colonial elites, minority ethnic groups or foreign holdings.



Lavish Lifestyles, Moral Decay and Ill-conceived Democracies


Unfortunately, many of the post-colonial African elites – both the political and economic empowerment classes - adopted the colonial elite’s striking consumption standard as a benchmark for success and in the process shunned the culture of hard work and meritocracy. Such extremely lavish and extravagant lifestyles led by minority elites provided fertile environment for corruption and immoral conduct, particularly in the backdrop of high levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment. The African Union has estimated that during the 1990’s corruption costed African economies approximately $150 billion per year, which amounts to around 25 percent of Africa’s GDP. Other accounts show that in one year corrupt African politicians and civil servants diverted amounts exceeding $30 billion in development aid to foreign bank accounts. In 1999, the Economist estimated that African politicians had stashed $20bn in Swiss bank accounts. University of Massachusetts research estimated that in the period 1970 to 1996, capital flight from 30 sub-Saharan countries was approximately $187 billion, a figure that exceeded those nations external debt.


Liberation movements which fought colonialist regimes during independence struggles, often turned into corrupt governments once they got into office. This was due to the fact that they were forced to adapt to the ambiguous and unaccountable approaches frequently employed by their oppressors. Moreover, many of these movements discouraged dissent and criticism of the leadership within the movements, for fear that they expose divisions within the movements. Fear was rationalized that such dissent could be exploited by the colonial government agencies such as the army, police and intelligence apparatus.


Many independence movements’ struggles were secretive due to their inherent nature. They often had to conduct their activities in secrecy and maneuver to thwart the intelligence and security apparatus of the colonial governments. Unfortunately, as they got into power, they also governed with heightened level of secrecy. Lack of openness in terms of transparency and limits on access to basic information is often widely practiced. Such practices constituted a breeding ground for corruption.


Supporters of liberation and independence elites often put them on a pedestal. This veneration continued into independence and resulted in leaders evading corruption and adopting personalized rule.


It is widely known that African ruling parties undermine opposition movements and hinder their ability to operate, by putting their leaders in jail, depriving them of needed resources and continually threating their existence. In many instances, independence movements seize opposition parties making one large united party either through negotiation or coercive measures.


Corruption with No Victims


African ruling parties are often under the misguided beliefs that corruption has no victims in spite of the fact that corruption has an inordinate impact on poverty and subsistence levels of the poor. In citing the causal link between political corruption, economic performance and poverty, Kofi Annan in 2005 noted: “Corruption is a key element in economic under-performance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development.” Corruption weakens the delivery of public services such as public housing, access to water and adequate sanitation, healthcare, as well as access to reliable supplies of electricity. It often results in diversion of financial as well as other scarce resources that could potentially be used for development with impacts on job creation, and poverty alleviation. It ultimately weakens the state capacity to deliver effective services. Equally likely, it undermines the trust of ordinary citizens in government.


Poverty rooted on political corruption is a manifestation of the evolved immoral conduct of the ruling elites and it is a major cause of Africa’s lack of progress; henceforth, it has consistently resulted in poor development. Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa has asserted: “Corruption is systemic in much of Africa today. It is another of Africa’s vicious circles: corruption has a corrosive effect on efforts to improve governance, yet improved governance is essential to reduce the scope for corruption in the first place.” Nonetheless, the argument remains strong that political corruption had its root causes in the colonial era and evolved into the moral makeup of the African governance systems we see today. One can surmise that the corruption patterns witnessed in the continent today have evolved similarly across many African nations since colonialism ended. In fact, current political leadership, in most African states, is monocratic and parochial rather than national in nature coupled with the fact that there has been an embarrassing lack of effective national heroes. Unless this long-standing evolutionary pattern of poor leadership and irresponsible governance is broken, we will continue to witness the denial of basic needs to citizens in most African states. We will continue to experience the profound state of instability as well as the overwhelming critical development issues which torment the continent today. 

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Image credit: Madelene Cronje, Mail and Guardian