Like most Africans, I have pondered long and hard about the perpetually terrible state of our countries, and why we remain mired in poverty and conflict decades after decades. Like others, I can easily summon up my rage against the usual suspects: western subjugation going all the way back to colonialism, power hungry elites, an uneducated population, lack of a viable infrastructure, etc etc. These are all credible factors, and should certainly be assessed and dealt with by all who have the wherewithal and the desire to help the cause. Nonetheless, there is another factor that has been studied evenly, but that we should also address more. Before I venture any further, be forewarned that this article is about ills, so no rosy "on the other hand" turns of phrases here.
The governments of our African countries are essentially the first brigade in this multi-tentacled conspiracy to keep Africans poor and destitute. The biggest reason for their culpability is not just because they were and continue to be corrupt, that they perpetuate tribal and sectional divisions to dominate power, and that they strike treasonous deals with multinationals to sell their country's precious resources for the price of kickbacks.
These are certainly dastardly deeds, but I believe they pale in comparison with their systematic dismantling of the very foundation of modern state leadership. Corruption is bound to happen in any institution, and governments are not immune from such, but Africa's governments have exacerbated the ills of corruption by systematically diverting state money abroad while destroying the spirit of public service in the process. A recent article from the prospect magazine coherently lays out this argument as formulated by Matthew Lockwood in a book titled, The State They're In. It sounds rather grave to say, but most African governments are essentially setup and run without the slightest concern for the country's welfare. In Asia, many of the government institutions had their share of corrupt technocrats and politicians, but you get the sense that the graft was incidental to the larger enterprise of serving their country. In other words, corruption by the leaders and stakeholders was not the main show as it is in many African countries, but was rather carried out by some elements that can credibly be called public servants.
When the whole political infrastructure, civil service corps and assorted other institutions are dedicated to graft and power grubbing as an end in and of itself, it is safe to say that measurable progress is not desired as a goal. While the looted money from the depleted treasuries is stashed in Swiss bank accounts, the governments devote what is left of their resources to stifling the energies and industry of their people. It is not by accident that Agricultural innovations that are hundreds of years old and costing fractions in the world market are not deployed in the African countryside. Products that are produced in Africa lag in marketability because we have not kept up with the global quest for cheaper modes of production and faster vehicles of delivery. There is the perennial complaint about western governments subsidizing their farmers, but that’s only part of the problem, because we can not honestly argue that our own governments do enough to help the chances of our own farmers.
Nonetheless, the machinery of African governments is very efficient in directing the resources of their treasuries to buying arms and munitions in the world market. The supply chain processes in many African countries are fairly advanced in their military procurements, but they can hardly be expected to institute functioning water waste projects or healthcare systems to treat the millions in their own capital cities. They can buy fighter jets and state of the art radar systems, but implementing manufacturing plants for basic agricultural tools is beyond their abilities. They can certainly rig up whole cities for their oil multinational partners, but claim poverty when it comes to providing the same amenities for their people.
It is clear that many of these governments and their patrons are invested in the status quo, and would rather discourage the emergence of a better-fed and educated populace lest their grip on power be challenged. This article is full of generalized accusations, and certainly intentionally devoid of a lot of nuance, but if it gets you to look more closely at our very foundations of government, then it has served its purpose. As an African, it is sobering to realize that we got off on the wrong footing when the colonialist left and we continue to be lost in the wilderness. The whole enterprise is going nowhere, and it’s about time we admit it.