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The Observer: It just won’t work: By Ken Wiwa

The Observer: It just won’t work: By Ken Wiwa

Posted 13 June 2005

Tony Blair’s desire to save Africa is admirable; his ideas are not

By Ken Wiwa

Watching Tony Blair go about his Africa business is an act of faith: you either believe or you are forced to suspend your disbelief. I admire the drive and determination with which he is trying to purge what he sees as a ‘stain on the world’s conscience’, but when he speaks of my continent like that, I wonder who his audience is: African or European?

Africans are nothing if not humble, but there is something about having your continent referred to as a stain on the world’s conscience that makes even the most docile of us queasy with indignation. None the less, I know what Mr Blair means or at least which audience he is talking to.

Having said that, the report of his Africa Commission, established to outline a programme to transform the continent, did a good job of addressing the multiple audiences it must reach, even if the appointees were insufficiently representative; there were only two women commissioners, there were too many politicians and too many bankers.

Still, the report was impressive in its analysis of the issues (for example, in how and why Africa got into its present condition) but flawed in its prescriptions. For example, its insistence on economic growth as the only curative is hard to swallow. Is it likely that the very institutions, governments and corporations that have made a killing on the continent can be trusted to repent, tear up their business and political models and ‘fix’ Africa?

Look, for instance, at that agreement on debt relief from multilateral institutions to 18 of the poorest countries in Africa. This is a welcome break for countries such as Ethiopia and Ghana, but what of the debts owed to private banks? The reality is that many African countries are in hock to private banks and these odious loans were often given without due diligence on the part of the lender. Moreover, the borrowers were often undemocratic regimes.

Why should unborn generations of children in Lagos and Nairobi have to suffer and go without essential medicines, because their governments are paying interest on loans sold to dictators by debt vultures on the bond markets of New York and London?

The bottom line is that African people and the environments on which they depend have to bear the costs of foreign investors and speculators. Private institutions and multinationals take risks but they are also well rewarded. If they were not, they would not be in Africa. Those who invest in Africa do so in the knowledge that they can hide behind a certain immunity from prosecution; they can name their terms and conditions to host governments who need their investment; they can fall back on subsidies and export guarantees and loan facilities on favourable terms.

And, whatever they may say in public about the lack of accountability and transparency in Africa, those who invest in Africa also know that the lack of accountability can work in their favour.

Take Shell. In the Niger Delta, Shell and other foreign oil companies have been flaring gas and flouting environmental regulations for decades. Only when activists such as my father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, began drawing attention to the practice and their environmental record did those records come under a wider public scrutiny. It will be 10 years in November since my father was murdered for daring to expose the complicity between Shell and the Nigerian military dictatorship to exploit the oil reserves of my Ogoni community.

Yet despite local and international criticism, Shell has yet to be held accountable for its environmental record in Nigeria. Just this past week, it announced a postponement of its oft-repeated promise to end gas flaring in Nigeria by 2007.

Only last year, Shell admitted putting a false prospectus to investors and was forced to write down its reserves by as much as four billion barrels. Some of the mis-stated information related to Nigeria and the company was quickly fined by the New York Securities Commission as the markets moved to protect investors. But what protection is there for African people and the environment when the same company flares gas into African skies? The truth is that there is one rule for the developed world and another set of rules in Africa.

Every now and again, the jurisdictions overlap, but rarely do Africans get the same kind of public safety protection that people in the West enjoy.

Unsurprisingly, then, young people in Africa are turning to violence as the most effective way of earning a living and securing economic and social justice. Already, it is estimated that there are eight million small arms in the hands of non-state ‘actors’ in west Africa alone. Amnesty International believes that most of these weapons ‘originate in eastern Europe’. If you follow the arms trail back from west Africa to eastern Europe, it leads to America and Britain which are the biggest manufacturers and exporters of arms.

It has become fashionable to insist that Africa’s problems are its own doing, and that violence and corruption are somehow uniquely African diseases. When the Americans preach of the need for good governance, a carrot-and-stick approach before writing off the debts of African countries, I can’t help but agree, but then the sermon omits to mention the complicity of American private banks in using loans to prop up dictators. What measures will the West take to deal with those who have been complicit in impoverishing Africa?

Africa is not poor. As the Africa Commission report has noted Africa is rich in human and natural resources. It has two-thirds of the world’s mineral resources. Africa pays out more in debt relief than it receives in aid. Africa trains and sends 77,000 professionals abroad each year to work in North America and Europe. There are more Ghanaian doctors in New York than in the whole of Ghana.

The problem is that Africans have been forced to live in nation states whose raison d’etre was not to enrich the lives of the people within them; rather, they existed to transfer the resources abroad.

There is a school of thought that says postcolonial Africa is still run on neo-colonial lines and insists that Africa must turn its back on the world, turn inwards, repatriate its human and natural resources and take control of its destiny. I can see the attraction of the argument, not least because it would impress on the rest of the world just how much it needs Africa. But I don’t subscribe to that option, because it would be almost impossible to put it into practice. And besides, the greater challenge is to unravel the prison house of nation states, failed and failing states that prevent the people realising their potential.

The struggle of Africa is the struggle to share resources both within and without the continent. Africa must be a part of a world economic order that is built on mutual respect and not exploitation. Africa needs the rest of the world as much as the world needs Africa.

If Blair’s ambitions for changing a continent’s fortunes and building a prosperous Africa are to succeed, he must address all those who have a stake in the continent. He must also deal justly with those who are part of the problem. And he must inspect the foundations on which the structure was built. Otherwise, the well-meaning rich world will be arranging the furniture as the house falls around them.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1504599,00.html

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