What exactly is wrong with Africa? Many years after independence, most African countries are still wedged at the run-way. Poverty levels remain high, hunger and starvation are a common mark. Politicians, especially those in the opposition have taken advantage of this quagmire to score political points by de-campaigning the sitting government. Ideally, one would expect things to improve when the opposing party gets into government. However, this has never been the case. It is actually common to hear most people say they regret having changed governments; implying they were better off with the previous regime.
Everyday the media is awash with debates and discussions of economic policies- in most cases involving well educated and experienced economists and development analysts. These are definitely cardinal in shaping positively the economic policy direction of countries. They are a conduit through which government is advised especially by non-state actors and those without direct access to those who are at the echelons of power. Beyond this, I firmly believe some of the best economists and development analysts work for the government-some of them in the main stream civil service ranging from civil servants employed as presidential advisers, those at the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of National Development Planning through to the Central Bank (in the case of Zambia).
Let me indicate that during my time as a student at the University of Zambia, I was privileged to be taught by one of the best brains Zambia has ever produced in as far as economic policy is concerned- Mr. Donald Chanda, the former Economic Policy Advisor to late former President Chiluba. A brilliant academician with vast experience in economic policy analysis. Those who were once his students can attest to this fact. I recall vividly in one of his lectures in ‘Economic Policy, Growth and Development’ when I asked him a question; ‘Sir! You seem to know so much about economic policy. How come you did not advise the then president to implement some of these policies that you are teaching us here?’ He answered me very well, but I will not dwell on the answer he gave me. My point is that African countries are not poor because they do not know the right economic policies. Of course, they know what works and what does not work. But why do they choose to implement that which does not work? I feel this is the missing link in much of economic and political discourse.
Acemoglu and Robinson in their book entitled ‘Why Nations Fail’ stress that countries rise when they put in place the right pro-growth political institutions and they fail-often spectacularly when those institutions ossify or fail to adapt. Powerful people always and everywhere seek to grab complete control over government, undermining broader social progress for their own ‘greed’. Their suggestion is that countries should keep those people in check with effective democratic institutions or otherwise watch their nations fail. This narrative underscores or rather romanticises the significant role that institutions play in ensuring that those in power implement the right policies. While this is true, we cannot ignore the fact that those in power have a tendency to rig the well-established institutional policies/rules for their own ‘greed’, but at the expense of the good of society.
Diana Cammack in her study of neopatrimonial politics in Africa states that there are a number of African countries who display the out-world signs of a modern, democratic state like those in the Western industrialized world. These states behave as though power resides within these government institutions and that they function as designed. However, many are the times when these institutions are rigged by those in power again for their own ‘greediness’. But why? In these institutions, real power and real decision making lie outside formal institutions. Instead, decisions especially those involving resources are made by powerful elites and their ‘cronies’ through informal patronage clientelist network that are established outside formal structures for personal benefits rather than national betterment. This is what I call ‘rigging within the institutions’ because of ‘greediness’.
Arising from the above therefore, I feel the biggest enemy of our society is something beyond political and economic institutions. It is ‘greediness’. According to the online dictionary, greediness is an excessive desire for wealth, usually in larger amounts. It can also be called stinginess resulting from a concern for your own welfare and a disregard of others. Greediness has caused so much damage to relationships of families and friends in most African societies. The desire for material wealth has become more valuable than people. Our African society seems to cherish accumulation of material wealth more than people and relationships. The media is awash with stories of scams, people swindling each other like the famous ‘419’ scams in Nigeria. All these are developed for the sole purpose of greediness. People wanting to amass quick wealth.
Unfortunately, this culture seems to have become embedded in African societies. Prisons and police cells are full of people accused, or even guilty of theft. Anti- Corruption agencies are everyday handling cases of corruption and money laundering. Drug trafficking and other illicit activities have become very rampant- all in the name of wanting to amass quick wealth. Young people have not been spared. Today, if you ask a pre-school child what they want to become when they grow old, do not be shocked if they tell you that they want to be extremely rich, they want to have the best and most expensive vehicles, a mansion, a lot of money. This is the language in our society. These are not just words. They are real materials that people long for, and they will go tooth and nail to seize every opportunity for acquiring such material wealth- whether legal or illegal.
It is this greediness that I believe explains economic stagnation in Africa. African politicians drive very expensive vehicles, they have huge salaries coupled with interminable allowances, they build mansions and own property that they don’t even need. The list is long but the big question is why would someone own so much-far more than they need when other people cannot afford even a single drop of clean water. It is undoubtedly true that the inherited imperfections of all mankind bring us into the lobs of greed. However, this is way too much in Africa. As a continent that claims to be making a footing on the ladder of Christianity, this vice should not be entertained. Let us not long for excessive wealth. We found these things on earth and we shall live them here. Just acquire what is enough for you and your family. If we all inculcate this culture before we assume political offices, I believe there will be no corruption in Africa, there will be equitable distribution of resources, and there will be pro-poor economic policies.
I want to end by challenging the church and the family to up-their-game. These institutions have a big role to play in fighting this social evil. They are the first agents of socialization that individuals come into contact with. These institutions should help build the right values in our people especially at an early stage. If individuals are properly nurtured, they will not rig the institutions for their own benefit, they will not involve themselves in corruption scandals. Until this is addressed, Africa will always be Africa with its politics irrespective of the political party in government. We will keep insulting each other, we will keep accusing each other, we will keep changing governments until ‘thy kingdom come’, nothing will change. Let us do the right thing and create wealth for our continent and for the generations to come. More importantly also, let us love each other regardless of our political party affiliations, tribe, race or nationality.
The author is a Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Zambia.