Wednesday February 13 2013

Pope resigns, and one wonders what Big Men like Museveni are thinking

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

So, in a surprise statement, Catholic Pope Benedict XVI announced on Monday that he is resigning at the end of February.

A true black swan event, because it is the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years. Benedict said he is resigning after eight years, because he was too old to continue at the age of 85. Correct, but age did not force his predecessors to resign.

For Uganda, and Africa in general, I sense that the significance of Benedict throwing in the towel is more political than religious. It casts new questions on Africa’s presidencies-for-life; like our own President Museveni’s 27 years in office (three times longer than Benedict’s reign); Cameroon’s President Paul Biya (30 years now); Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s 33 years (who at 89 is five years older than the Pope); and Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema (34 years now).

John Paul II, whom Benedict succeeded in 2005, visited Uganda in 1993. In less than a month, the Catholic Church will have a new leader. This means President Museveni has gone through an experience that no other Uganda leader will live through possibly for the next 500 years – being president through the life of three popes. And, who knows, he might even see off a fourth pope.

Why does any of this matter? Because whatever else, Pope Benedict, a clever man, would have figured that the world has moved far beyond him. And, perhaps, for him, this could not have become more apparent than when he joined Twitter and within weeks, without mediation and handlers, grew his following to over 670,000. Huge, yes, but hopefully the Pope must also have wondered why musicians like Justin Bieber and the eccentric Lady Gaga have more than 34 million followers each.

Lady Gaga, for one, is the opposite of everything Pope Benedict stands for, and when she launched her perfume “Fame”, she said she created it because she wanted a scent that made her “smell like a slut”. And women are buying it in droves.

In this kind of world, a Pope Benedict is most definitely not the man to attract a new following – and keep the faithful flock – in the Catholic Church.

Africa too is changing along. For years, most African professionals took the first chance to flee the continent for the West. The trend is reversing. A recent survey found that 70 per cent of Africans currently studying towards an MBA at leading Western business schools would return to the continent to work after graduation.

And, even more interesting, half of them said they are returning to Africa to become entrepreneurs and start their own companies – not to work for someone else!

Then The Economist magazine dug through Africa and reported that this year Lagos will overtake Cairo to become Africa’s largest city. Within the next 10 years Lagos will have 16m people. Also, this year, over half of all African city-dwellers will, for the first time, be under 18 years of age. African cities will be the most informal economies in the world in 2013, where some 70 per cent of workers will live on their wits. That, The Economist argued, will make cities dynamic and mobile, but also combustible.

This poses a challenge no African leader has ever had to confront, and that few of the existing ones, let alone our President, can provide creative solutions for.

But there is something commentators don’t touch on much. Though Nigeria seems to be chaotic and besieged by murderous Boko Haram terrorists, the economy of Lagos State is bigger than the whole of Kenya’s – East Africa biggest economy. If Lagos were a country, it would be Africa’s fourth largest economy.

In its madness, and an inept government, Nigeria continues to defy the odds. We are having these new situations in many parts of Africa where states that are approximating failure, exist side by side with dizzyingly creative groups and societies.

These tensions become more pronounced if you consider that sub-Sahara Africa combined, excluding South Africa, still consumes as much electricity as the city of New York per day - about 40 terawatts. Just imagine the headroom for growth, and the shake-up that will come with that.

Indeed, recently I met with someone who is close to the new Bujagali Dam. Bujagali produces 250MW of electricity. The highest consumption it records is 200MW. On many occasions, especially at night, consumption plummets to just 100MW. Uganda truly goes to sleep. There are few factories running, and the biggest consumption is by nightclubs and five-star hotels.

The chap looked me in the face and said: “You guys need to industrialise your country.” To inspire the movement that makes that happen, I suspect our Big Men and Women will need to follow Pope Benedict and allow the space for that to happen to open up. & twitter@cobbo3