Who broke Africa?

Tony Blair believes Africa is a "scar on the conscience of the world". Mike Francis investigates why this should be so, and what African specialists think can be done to heal the continent.

What was the event?

"Who broke Africa and who will fix it?", a debate jointly sponsored by the Economist and the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Where was it held?

The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London.

Who were the speakers?

Former Associate Foreign Editor of the Guardian, Victoria Brittain, now at the London School of Economics; Economist Africa Bureau Chief Robert Guest, author of new book The Shackled Continent and one-time winner of the "best floppy hair in Sub-Saharan Africa" award; Funmi Olonisakin of King's College London, formerly with the United Nations; and George Ayittey, president of the Free Africa Federation in Washington DC.

Was it easy to find?

If you knew in advance that scaffolding and blue tarpaulins cover the front of the building, then yes.

How comfortable were the seats?

Not too bad. Institutional, but well padded and a shade of dark blue.

How many were in the audience?

About 150. The audience was a mix of SOAS-type postgraduate students, NGO-looking types, African expatriate academics and the odd journalist and writer.

How good were the speakers?

They all seemed very well prepared. Robert Guest was the man of the moment and his book seemed the inspiration for the debate, so he had an anecdote to support every statement. Victoria Brittain largely fulfilled the cliché of a Guardian journalist – right down to the spectacles and the habit of blaming the US for as much as possible.

West African Funmi Olonisakin spoke a little more haltingly, but got more response from the predominantly left wing crowd, while Ghanaian George Ayittey spoke powerfully and got more laughs than the rest of the panellists put together. All of the speakers seemed to have a fairly detailed knowledge of African politics and economics.

Did you have a drink before you got there?

Well, a quick gin, but only one.

The digested debate

Victoria Brittain: It seems the answer to the first question – who broke Africa? – falls into two parts: the legacy of colonialism and the domestic issues after independence. Africa is in crisis only in certain areas, but the bad news tends to make the news reports. It is also very artificial to have to speak about the continent as a whole.

Colonial powers and ex-colonial powers both manipulated ethnicity. France and the US wilfully destroyed the development of a sophisticated political class in Zaire, and destroyed Mozambique and Angola when they tried to help their apartheid South African allies.

Western interest in Africa has always been about resources – look at the misery inflicted on Nigeria and Sudan in the pursuit of oil. Everywhere, people conduct business through bribery, while African leaders connive with the west and mainly blame outsiders for African problems.

It will be the Africans that fix Africa but, before Africa can hope to do this, outsiders must fund HIV/AIDS programmes before the demographics of the continent change too much.

They must also cancel African debt, remove EU and US agricultural subsidies, control the first world end of the arms trade and release massive funding for African education. We need to support a new generation of African educated elite. Too many educated Africans leave the continent.

At current rates of spending, the UN Development Programme says that it will take until 2147 to halve African poverty. If we spent a fraction of the costs of the Iraq war, we could achieve the same results by 2015.

Robert Guest: I am surprised to find myself agreeing with much of what you say. On blaming outsiders, I was in Zimbabwe last week. Mugabe blames everything on a conspiracy of western imperialists and homosexuals.

I was in the Zanu PF (ruling party) stronghold talking to subsistence farmers, and they said life got dramatically worse each year. They blamed the government, but said they would still vote for them because they were scared the government would burn their homes. This is what happens when rulers respect neither property rights nor their own laws.

Zimbabwe is not Africa. But Africa is the only continent to get poorer in the last 25 years. The problem is simply a failure of leadership, but it is not a uniform failure. At independence, Zambia was the second richest country in Africa, but it was poorly led. Everything was nationalised and now it is very poor. On the other hand, Botswana used its diamond wealth wisely, business goes unhindered and the government is, largely, incorrupt.

Africans need to take charge of their own destiny, shake off predatory regimes and I am optimistic that will happen. Between 1960 and 1989, Africans only voted one government out. In the 1990s, they threw out 12. There are positive examples in South Africa, Ghana and Kenya. We, in the west, need to tear down tariffs and subsidies, target aid more carefully and support good governance. I also support military humanitarian intervention in some cases.

Funmi Olanisakin: There has been a systematic connivance between western states and African elites. There have been isolated do-gooders in the west but what has remained constant is that the interest of the west never changes.

States will always pursue their own ends, but their interests deviate strongly from the interests of Africans. When western interests appear to be under threat, just look at the difference in western response to Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau. Elites manipulate religion and ethnicity so that communities fight each other.

What our leaders have learnt to do is institutionalise elections so they give the appearance of democracy; otherwise, they realise they will not receive more aid. But, if you scratch the surface, they are not democratic. Heads of state take criticism very badly.

We need a more educated African elite. Policy is too state-orientated; we need to get the west to stop dealing with us as states. There is too little regard for movements that go across borders. We have to set the conditions with which the west will deal with us, not the other way around. When Africans unite, we get something done, just as we did when we united against colonialism.

George Ayittey: In Africa, it is the leaders that are the problem, not the people. Colonialism, the slave trade and artificial boundaries do not explain our current predicament. Nor is it just the West's fault – the Arabs exploited Africans too.

The West is not the appropriate agency to solve the problem because they do not understand the problem – just look at Somalia. If you ask someone else to help, they will try and solve the problem to their advantage, not yours. Eighty percent of US aid goes on American contractors and subcontractors. And colonial guilt means the West fears they will be seen as racist if they denounce African governments.

The richest man in the US is Bill Gates; he made his money by producing something and selling it. The richest people in Africa are the heads of state – that is not wealth creation, that is wealth redistribution. If you want to make money, you should do it in the private sector.

I come down hard on one-party states, they are contrary to African heritage – African people could oust their chiefs and these leaders did not take decisions by themselves. A state-controlled economic system is also contrary to African culture; it should be about free trade and free markets. African chiefs do not fix prices.

Many African countries do not have a government; they have a vampire state that uses the state machinery to enrich cronies. Those excluded from power can rise up and remove the vampire elites that damage Zimababwe, Zaire, South Africa, Rwanda and Burundi.

More African countries will blow – Zimbabwe and Chad, for example. Other small areas will secede, like Biafra tried to break away from Nigeria. Other Africans will simply get up and move somewhere else – this is why we have so many refugees.

Inclusion is important. The economic apartheid in Rwanda was the same as in South Africa. However, in South Africa, they brought in the politics of inclusion.

And less than eight of the 54 African countries have a completely free media. If the West wants to help Africa, they should concentrate on freedom of expression.

The digested debate, digested

Victoria Brittain: Africans will save Africa, but the West must do, and spend much more, to atone for its past sins.

Robert Guest: Failure of leadership is the problem; African leaders cannot blame the west for everything. Africa needs tariff cuts, economic liberalism and, maybe, occasional military intervention. I am optimistic.

Funmi Olonisakin: Connivance between the self-serving west and African elites is the problem. We need to get the people involved and concentrate less on the apparatus of states.

George Ayittey: Western solutions will not solve African problems. Africans need to remove their vampire states and promote economic inclusion. Freedom of the press is key.

The digested debate, digested still further until nothing is left but one rather bland sentence . . .

African elites and the west broke Africa; western money and African solutions might fix it.

Was there time for questions?

A little, although some of the questions seemed designed to boost the egos of the questioners, and some went on longer than the speeches.

However, George Ayittey did list the five things an African country needs: an independent central bank, independent judiciary, independent media, independent electoral commission and neutral professional armed forces.

Was there anything left out of the debate?

There were not many solid examples of how things could work, and the speakers gave hardly any pragmatic solutions at all. Lots of people mentioned regime change or major political change, but no one really explained how this could happen.

The most surprising thing?

The free Royal Institute of International Affairs magazine. It carried a fascinating article stating that, by 2014, African oil will meet 30 per cent of the United States' oil needs. The article also examined subtle, but increasing, US military involvement in the region.

Did anything interesting happen after you left?

There was some free wine, but we found a pub for a swift pint, then caught a bus and ran into a beggar that asked for money to buy a gun and a balaclava.

Article by: Mike Francis - http://www.ak13.com