Last week, we asked “what is the meaning” of Abiy Ahmed, the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who has shaken up his country and the region with reforms, and diplomatic moves once considered “impossible”. A few days ago, he travelled to hitherto Ethiopian foe Eritrea, and ended a state of war that had existed since the two nations fought in a shockingly bloody border war in 1998.
Last Saturday, Eritrea’s strongman Isaias Afwerki returned the visit, his first time in 22 years! Tens of thousands of Ethiopians in the capital Addis Ababa turned out to welcome. Afwerki, like President Museveni, represent the crop of leaders who, we noted, were in the 1990s described by then US president Bill Clinton as the “new breed of African leaders”.
This “new breed” has mostly faded or is gone. It included Museveni, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Afewerki, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki. Abiy, we remarked, was a post-Cold War, early Internet Age child. This should not be understood to mean that the “new breed” did nothing. They succeeded in ways past generations of African leaders didn’t. Consider the challenges that the independence generation of African leaders, the Milton Obotes, Julius Nyereres, the Kwame Nkrumah’s, faced.
While the anti-colonial struggle was hard and dangerous, and they faced formidable European powers, it’s also true that the idea of colonialism was dead. They worked in an environment where there was more clarity: The European had to go. The next thing was nation building. We would take over, give the countries back to the people, and invest in their development.
When the Musevenis came to power at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s, there is despair.
The Africans had mostly ruined their countries. The optimism of independence had collapsed, and the people were afraid to believe again. With varying degrees, they rebuilt. Mbeki spoke of an “African renaissance”. There was a rebirth of sorts, and by the start of the 2000s, it became fashionable to talk of “Africa rising”. Though many remained autocrats, the Museveni class opened up the continent in ways they have not been fully appreciated for. They worked themselves out of a job---then refused to acknowledge the reality of what they had achieved.
To be African today is very different. Over the decades of turmoil, millions of our people fled to the West. They are such a huge constituency for countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea, Uganda, and over half of Africa, their remittances are the largest source of foreign exchange. This reality that many Africans are both African and non-African, led to many changes that were once considered treasonous – like dual citizenship.
The Internet expanded the horizons of people dramatically, even if they didn’t leave home. However, the counter-force to globalisation, so-called glocalisation, meant that finding our own African identity in a world where we were being lumped into a single digital universe became even more important. This was not a contradiction. We were no longer just one thing.
Hear this. Until recently, there was a club in Nairobi, which was the only one in the upmarket side of the city where you could get good old-fashioned live “Lingala” music (as Ugandans call it). It attracted older folks, and the elite. One evening, a group of Ugandan expatriates arranged a meet-up there. As the night drew on, we begun to be concerned that one of our favourite members hadn’t showed up. Eventually, he did – in style. He had some sophisticated, but wild young women with him, and people started fidgeting uncomfortably.
But then we noticed that there were other tall women in suits standing behind them. That is when the member told us that it was because the mystery women were the daughters of an African president! That African president is, to put it mildly, a dictator. At that point, even the simple pleasures of life, like partying, were largely banned in his country. Yet, here were his daughters, as soon as they stepped out of the country, going wild like they were on the Las Vegas Strip. How did they get that way?
The Kenya Bureau of Statistics (KBS) Economic Survey report of 2017 section on tourism had some surprises. It said the period from 2012 to 2016, Africa accounted for a huge 61.2 per cent of the total occupancy in hotels, lodges and other rooming houses, in Kenya. It noted that lodge occupancy by East Africans dominated growth in the sector, doubling in the period 2014-2015. Most intriguing, it said the category that is popular with East African tourists, is “self-service camping”.
You probably don’t know any Ugandan who goes to Kenya to camp in the bushes. Who are these Africans? They are the ones whose oldest brother is Abiy’s age…or he is just like the guy who married their eldest sister. A certain openness, wanting to be global, a desire to be a “new” Africa, and unease about having a boot on the people’s necks, is their generational trait.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa datavisualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]