Africa Earned Its Debt

Robert Guest
The Namibian, 29 October 2004

When the price of crude oil hit US$50 a barrel, sending ripples of anxiety around the world, analysts blamed a young Nigerian man with a machine gun and a speedboat.

He is Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militia boss who is threatening to start a civil war and shut down the Nigerian oil industry, which is the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. He will do this, he says, unless his people, the Ijaw, who live on top of the Nigeria's oil fields, are granted autonomy. By "autonomy" he means "control of the oil money". Nigerian officials dismiss Asari as a gangster. But if so, he is a gangster who has friends in the ruling party and is taken seriously enough that Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, felt obliged to sit down and negotiate with him. President Obasanj is a well-meaning fellow, but his job is made more difficult because he is surrounded by crooks. Nigeria, like much of Africa, ought to be rich but is miserably poor.

The main reason is that rather than striving to create an environment in which people can freely seek prosperity and happiness, most African governments have chosen to rob them. This culture of criminality has spread throughout the ruling class, down to the Nigerian border guard who threatened to beat up my driver last month if I didn't give him a dollar, to the bribe-hungry Cameroonian police officers who stopped a truck I was riding in 47 times in 300 miles.
This corruption makes it hard to do business in Africa. Manufactures need smooth roads, reliable electricity and 
efficient ports. But too often in Africa, the roads are craterous because someone has looted the maintenance budget, the power fails because the state monopoly utility company is staffed with politicians' idiot cousins, and the customs officers hang onto your goods for weeks in the hope that you will bribe them to hurry up. In only two African countries - South Africa and Botswana - is it relatively easy to do business, a recent World Bank study found.
For bright, energetic Africans, it is often easier to get rich by joining the government than by creating honest wealth.
That is why the debt relief proposal debated earlier this month in Washington by officials from World Bank,
the International Monetary Fund and the Group of 7 nations would not be a panacea for Africa. Faster
debt relief is a good idea for countries with relatively clean, pragmatic governments that pursue sensible economic politics, like Mozambique and Uganda. But debt relief cannot help the worst-governed countries like Zimbabwe and Angola because their leaders are likely to squander the money it frees up. In those places, extra cash props despots.
This is a more complex picture than many debt campaigners will admit. It may be, as Oxfam complains, that Zambia cannot hire enough teachers because the monetary fund has told its government not to run too large a budget deficit. But that is not the whole story. The main reason Zambia is bankrupt is that it has been ruled with startling incompetence and venality; for example, its previous president, Frederick Chiluba, is facing multiple charges of embezzlement.
Outsiders cannot fundamentally change the way Africa is governed. That is a task for Africans themselves, and
some are rising to the challenge. On Nigeria, President Obasanjo has hired a team of technocrats to curb corruption by making the public accounts more transparent. They are doing their best, but one of them told me that probably Nigerian in 20 supports the clean-up. That in a nutshell is why Africans are poor: their leaders keep them that way.

Robert Guest, Africa editor for The Economist, is the author of "The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption
and African Lives".



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