Why do we Africans and our leaders allow ourselves the constant indignity of going abroad to beg when we have so much wealth and so much potential?
It is hard not to return to that question every time the question of Africa’s poverty and vulnerability is raised, as it was at the European Union-Africa Union Summit in Brussels last week.
The conventional wisdom – that we are poor – does not explain the underlying notion of why we are poor, and whether we really are poor. We might be the poorest people in the world but Africa is not a poor continent. From the oil fields of Libya to the mines in South Africa to the lush fertile soils of East Africa to the forests of Central Africa; we are not lacking in resources.
The quality of our leaders, or the lack of it, offers a more viable explanation. Take for instance, the sight of President Goodluck Jonathan joining the Begging Brigade in Brussels seeking to share in the €28 billion that the EU promised to spend in Africa over the next six years.
This is a leader whose corrupt government officials have stolen $10 billion of Nigeria’s oil money in just a couple of years. If Nigeria put this money in an Africa Fund, it would not go from a beggar to a lender overnight. That President Jonathan, begging hat in hand, does not see this or does but is unable to do anything about it, says a lot about his incompetence.
Yet this begs a subsequent question; why do we have incompetent leaders in Africa? We have not always been this way. Our pre-colonial era is littered with examples of visionary leaders and elaborate government structures.
Our independence and post-independence movements gave birth to visionary leaders, from Kwame Nkrumah to Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba to Abdel Nasser Gamal. Why is it that today we have the likes of Teodore Obiang Nguema, the thieving dictator of Equatorial Guinea? How could South Africa have gone from the selflessness of Nelson Mandela to the selfishness of Jacob Zuma?
One suspects that the problem could be a lack of a unifying ideology among our leaders and us. For all the claims to African solutions to African problems, we only claim our African identity in relation to outsiders, not in relation to ourselves. Thus while we are Africans abroad, we become Ugandans, Kenyans, Somali when we return to the continent, and narrow ourselves even further within our boundaries by seeking the warm, familiar embrace of the tribe.
The Lord’s Resistance Army rebels killed and maimed people for decades but no one came to intervene because the victims weren’t African; they were Ugandans. We watched Somalia implode and slide into anarchy in the same way we now watch the Central African Republic or Mali but there is no inclination to lift a finger because they are Somalis or Fulani.
Our problem is not that we fight too many wars in Africa, but that we fight the wrong wars – small civil wars over meagre State resources, instead of big regional wars to redraw borders, united people, and build empire.
Why does it take France to sort out the mess in Mali when Nigeria, next door, simply looks on, its military leaders too bloated with graft to deal with Boko Haram?
The Africa that seeks to deal with the world is an artificial and unsustainable construct of tribal tensions locked up in nation-states. We must put our empty claims to sovereignty aside and define a pan-African set of values and ideology. It is the only way to overcome the residual indignity of the leader of a country as big, rich and proud as the Congo, going to beg from its colonial master – a small country best known for a small statue of a small boy holding a small thing.