Cynical politicians, pipedreams - and how we can make a difference

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"Seize ye first the political kingdom!" said Kwame Nkrumah, the prophet of African independence and Ghana's first leader. That was more than 50 years ago and his advice has been followed diligently by every politically ambitious African man ever since.

"Seize ye first the political kingdom!" said Kwame Nkrumah, the prophet of African independence and Ghana's first leader. That was more than 50 years ago and his advice has been followed diligently by every politically ambitious African man ever since.

The few who got to the top of Africa's greasy political pole - no woman has yet made it - have seized it and held on tight, usually until pushed off by force.

Africa's winner-takes-all politics lies at the heart of everything that has gone wrong with Africa. It is the reason why it has fallen behind the rest of the world economically, the reason for its wars and poverty. Its roots go back to the creation of African states themselves, the lines drawn on maps by the European powers at the end of the 19th century, that became 40-odd states overlaying some 10,000 societies and political entities.

Take Nigeria for example. Like Europe it has three big tribes and several other ethnic groups, 25 in the case of Europe, more than 400 in the case of Nigeria. Imagine a united European state - united by force not by referendum - which has to elect one president, one government. A Europe in which the French are Muslim, the Germans Catholic, the British Protestant and there is only one source of income, oil, and it is under the Germans. And where - if anyone mentions putting their own people first or forming an alliance with another ethnic group - they are accused of being tribalist and endangering the future of the state.

With a few exceptions African states have no common understanding or experience of nationhood. Their flags, their national anthems, their identities were created by outsiders. Patriotism in the good sense is in short supply.

If you want power, you play the ethnic card or rubbish your religious rivals. And when you have power, you bring your own people into government, and - even more importantly - into the army. The state treasury increasingly becomes a private bank account and when you run for election the entire state structure and all its officials are at your disposal. If anyone inside the continent says anything, you accuse them of interfering in internal affairs. If anyone outside Africa criticises, you accuse them of racism and neo-colonialism. It's a simple formula that has worked brilliantly for Robert Mugabe and many others.

Those new to Africa are often struck by a paradox. Firstly how individualistic and cynical African politicians are. Secondly how communal and hopeful most Africans are. There seems to be little connection or even shared values between rulers and ruled.

Despite Africa's dysfunctional political culture, some countries have worked. Botswana has been coup-free and relatively corruption-free. The presidency has passed through three safe pairs of hands.

Tanzania remains virtually a one-party state but the recent election of a new presidential candidate by the ruling party was as democratic as it gets.

Ghana and Senegal have both changed governments through elections. Yet none of them are free from problems of regional or ethnic discontent; Botswana with the San Bushmen, Tanzania with Zanzibar and Senegal and Ghana with minorities that feel excluded.

Others have looked as if they were coming right but then seem to have fallen back into old problems. Uganda under Yoweri Museveni has been the darling of the aid-giving governments for years with more than half its budget coming from aid. But now he seems determined to change the constitution to extend his rule. A report commissioned by the World Bank found that it has turned into a corrupt one-party state and recommends that direct budget support to Uganda be stopped.

Kenya where the corrupt old regime of Daniel arap Moi was replaced in a stunning election victory for an opposition alliance, has become even more corrupt than before. Then there are the big holes on the map: Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan - ruled in great parts by local barons and warlords and where there is no democracy despite, in Nigeria's case, having had elections.

Given this, the prospect of turning Africa around with aid and debt relief seems at best doubtful, at worst a pipedream.

Uganda presents a terrible dilemma. To punish Mr Museveni by cutting aid could mean we hurt millions of Ugandans who are beginning at last to see real change in their lives. The country is so dependent on aid that dropping it would risk destroying the economic gains it has made in recent years. Mr Museveni knows the donors well and their moral scruples. He will take huge risks with his country's future to stay in power. Will he, after all he has achieved, throw it all away? As they used to say of Mr Moi in Kenya: "If you are the only one on the teat, it does not matter how thin the cow gets."

Yet these hard-boiled calculations do not enter the soft world of Live Aid concerts and the campaigns for debt relief and more aid. This aid agency-driven agenda creates the illusion that the hungry African child they use in their fund-raising propaganda can be directly reached by your money. Give, and the child will receive. In this world there are no cynical rulers, no corrupt governments, no nasty armies. Instead there are governments whose only constraint are the funds which, if they did not have to spend them servicing debt, they would spend on food, medicine and school books for that child.

I was delighted yesterday when Bob Geldof said he did not want your money - just your support, because there are things we can do for Africa apart from give it money. Or rather, there are damaging things we can stop doing and barriers we can remove to give Africa a real chance to earn its living in the world and develop.

Firstly, we can fight to end the agricultural subsidies for farmers in Europe, America and Japan that keep world prices low and squeeze African commodities out the market. And end the export subsidies that allow cheap food to be dumped in Africa destroying African markets. High tariffs keeping out African goods need to be cut, but African countries need a bit of time before reciprocating the removal of trade barriers, as they have no safety nets to protect workers who lose their jobs.

Secondly, we could look closely at the outside dimension to corruption in Africa. Britain has resisted signing up to the UN Convention on Corruption and British companies are fighting regulations that would make them responsible for corrupt practices by their agents as well as their own staff. London looks to be the laundry of choice when it comes to laundering African corruption money - and although the reporting regulations have been tightened up, few reports from banks about suspicious funds are followed up by the Financial Services Authority unless they are related to drugs or terrorism.

Thirdly, we have to stop encouraging the brain-drain from Africa. There are said to be more Malawian nurses in Birmingham than in Malawi, a country ravaged by Aids. It is not about a ban, but maybe finding ways of turning the ebb and flow of skills into a win-win rather than a win-lose, as it is at the moment.

Fourthly, the arms and mines that kill in Africa's wars are mostly made in the former Soviet Union, but the dealers are mostly in London and the deals are made in the City. They are not licensed or regulated in any way.

Fifthly, Britain has got to do something about its immigration policy. Thousands of Africans living in Britain - or trying to come here for study or to visit relatives - are left with an impression of Britain somewhat at odds with Tony Blair's passion for Africa. I spent a day and half trying to get a visa for a well-known Ugandan MP, who was scheduled to speak at a meeting I was organising. Not even the intervention by our new Minister for Africa, Lord Treisman, could move the Home Office to deliver it in time.

All these were touched on in the Commission for Africa report. At its launch Tony Blair said the report's recommendations were now British policy. Is he serious? If so then the Queen's speech should have made reference to these issues, some of which require parliamentary time and legislation. But the mentions of Africa in the Queen's speech were vague and exhortatory.

Most important of all, we need to make a long-term commitment to Africa and spend more resources trying to understand how it works. The Government needs advice on how to call those difficult political decisions. Africa has been handed over to the expanding Department for International Development where knowledge of development theory is deep but experience of African political realities is thin or non-existent.

Meanwhile cuts at the Foreign Office is allowing it to shed its African experts like dead leaves. One day we may regret it.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal Africa Society and was the first Africa editor of 'The Independent'

A continent stricken by poverty

* Income per person in the poorest countries in Africa has fallen by 25 per cent in the past 20 years. Those countries' share of world trade has fallen by almost half since 1981 and is now 0.4 per cent.

* The world's three richest people control more wealth than all 600 million people in the world's poorest countries.

* 2.8 billion people - nearly half the world's population - live on less than £1.20 per day. One in five survives on less than 65p per day.

* More than 10 million children die of hunger and preventable diseases each year - one child every three seconds, while 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV or Aids. Each day 8,500 people - of whom 1,600 are children - die from HIV-related illnesses.

* Every day, 30,000 children die as a result of extreme poverty. Each day, 50,000 people die of hunger and preventable illnesses.

* It would cost less than 1 per cent of world income to wipe out world poverty.

* More than 40 per cent of the world's population live in low-income countries - yet these countries account for just 3 per cent of world trade. In Africa alone, a 1 per cent increase in the share of world trade would generate $70bn - five times what it gets in aid.

* For every dollar given to poor countries in aid, they lose two dollars to rich countries because of unfair trade barriers against their exports.

* Africa has lost 50p for every pound it receives in aid because of the falling prices it gets for its commodities.

Elisa Bray

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