By Ernest Opong
In a response to a reporter’s question on the alleged rigging of the 2003 elections that re-elected him president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, rhetorically asked the reporter “na democracy we go chop?”or put in more conventional English: will democracy feed the people? In other words, can democracy put food on the table of the poor? As funny as the question appears, the underlying issue is the worth of democracy when the people are hungry.
In reflecting about the former president’s encounter with the reporter, it is important to examine the implications of freedom and democracy in relation to economics and wealth creation.
Democracy, of course, does not provide instant wealth, neither is it imbued with wealth. On the other hand, democracy creates the enabling climate for wealth creation and unfettered economic activity. If indeed, however, democracy does possess all the above attributes, one might conclude that there should be no poverty in the United States of America, the world’s preeminent democracy. The truth in the aforementioned conclusion gets even more impressive as we consider India, another country with impressive democratic credentials.
As far as Africa is concerned, much more than democracy is required to provide the needed economic freedom or prosperity.
In a few cases elsewhere, practices other than freedom and democracy have been applied to enable prosperity and wealth. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore was able to establish a prosperous city state into a major economic power house. Among the methods, he applied elements of despotism and some democratic practices to ensure the success of his new nation built from the scratch on an unwanted marshland. Most African leaders are not known to be democratic. The Mugabes, Musevenis, Bongos, to name a few may not necessarily be democrats but they certainly espouse the ideal. Essentially, they do not believe in the ballot box as a vehicle for democratic change. They only go to the polls to legitimize their stay in office. They may be corrupt, at least by western standards, yet in their own ways they seek their people’s welfare in several ways that the so-called democracies would not. Impliedly, however, only a handful of countries in sub-Saharan Africa can be described as democracies. The rest are all tyrannies and almost all sub-Saharan African nations happen to be poor irrespective of their political situations. One would think that western nations that are hell-bent on ensuring democracy on the continent would also ensure economic growth and development in Africa.
On the contrary, for more than five decades after independence, African economies continue to wallow in poverty as they continue to produce primary goods for the economies of their former colonial overlords. But for the recent growth in Chinese investments in Africa, African economies are tied to those of their former colonial powers. The other thing is that the constant exploitation of primary goods to feed European and American industry is gradually depleting the continent of its environmental prosperity. Ghana’s pristine tropical forests are giving way to savannah grasslands, while mining, legal and illegal is devastating the country’s forest reserves. Farmlands are also being mined away, while water bodies remain at the mercies of unfeeling miners. It is also ironic that some of the countries touted as democracies in Africa happen to be some of the most mismanaged. Leading the bunch are Ghana and Nigeria, sister nations on the western region of the continent. Ghana is now a country at a standstill. The Ghanaian government is racked with corruption and mismanagement.
At a time when the economy is supposed to grow at a steady pace, it is steadily pacing backwards. The country’s currency, the cedi is in a free fall. What used to be almost one to one with the US dollar just five years ago is now devalued not purposefully for economic gains but through mismanagement. Inflation is a marked feature of a nation whose economy was growing at a pace faster than most western countries a couple of years ago. The government is now courting the IMF for advice in spite of its purported growth. It is only in Africa where democracy hardly ensures economic development. A recent press report from Nigeria indicated that Africa’s most populous nation is getting richer as its people get poorer. One would think that probably stems from the application of prudent measures to ensure growth. But that would be begging the question if the people who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of any form of economic growth were ignored. What good would a household be if it is able to pay its bills when the family cannot afford to feed itself? For a country that produces a chunk of the world’s crude oil the average Nigerian is subsisting on a shoestring and hardly able to feed. The country is not only known for corruption, its name connotes that damnable word. A nation that possesses some of the finest brains in all fields of endeavor is in ridicule mostly because of misrule and crooked governance.
Instances of corrupt deals and scandals among politicians are a constant feature of life in Africa irrespective of the country’s political culture. In some African countries the families of the ruling elite own almost every lucrative business. The Gaddafi family in Libya under Muammar Gaddafi owned and operated airlines, telecommunication companies, road transportation among some major businesses. In a country with just a little over six million people and earning a national income from oil that runs into several billions of dollars per year, the standard of living in Libya leaves much to be desired. Same is a constant feature on the continent. But even more so, Africa’s continuing economic malaise in spite of its much heralded growth, lack of expertise and poor advice have continued to drag the continent back. African experts and officials in such international bodies as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund run into few hundreds but their native countries hardly enjoy the benefits of their experiences and knowledge. The brother of late President John Evans Atta Mills of Ghana used to be one of the advisors of the government but it was in his time that huge sums of money were paid to some individuals and companies as judgment debts. Logically one would not be far from right to conclude that in as much as home-grown advisors and experts have not helped in economic development of most African nations, foreign advisors have not helped any.
In his meeting with African leaders last August at the White House, President Barack Obama continued to remind his African colleagues of the need to ensure democratic and people-centered governance. Most of those leaders who were at the meeting have at one time or the other been either blacklisted or placed on the roll of oligarchs and dictators by the US State Department. Most have not changed their ways either and yet left promises to change. Obviously the stick-and-carrot method of the United States has not worked even with threats of the withdrawal of aid. They know China is always available to provide them with anything they need.
Obviously democracy is not a recipe for wealth as the west wants Africa to acknowledge. African leaders know better than that and would rather exploit the incidence of poverty and disease for their continued misrule of the continent. With China in the equation, the west is now beginning to devalue democracy as a factor in exploitation of the continent. There appears to be a subtle agreement with General Obasanjo that democracy does not put food on the table. Need we say more?
Ernest Opong is the Director, Africa Bureau of Center for Media & Peace Initiatives