By Matthew Ayibakuro
Last month Germany hosted the meeting of the Group of Seven countries, often referred to as the G7 Summit. These countries consider themselves the most powerful industrialised countries in the World. It used to be group of eight of course, but Russia is suspended. The merits of this group in world order and its legacy remains debatable; a debate that I do not wish to engage in at the moment. But every now and then, certain countries are invited to dine with this group of the high and mighty. This year Nigeria was was one of the fortunate chosen ones.
Of course Nigeria had to consider itself one of the charmed ones going to the G7 Summit, especially at this point in time. After all, it is the newest darling of the democracy-crazy west. The country had just concluded general elections where the ruling party had been toppled by an opposition party that had not only won the elections, but did so with a campaign strategy shaped by western consultants. These G7 countries could not have wished for a better scenario. Even before his inauguration, President Buhari was the guest of David Cameron to Downing Street, where the Nigerian leader promised, amongst other things, to do all he could to secure his country’s borders, thereby ensuring that Britain would not have to deal with the infestation of African migrants to Europe. This is very crucial to Cameron’s commitment to limit migration to Britain at all costs.
And by the way, that is apart from the fact that he remains very committed to aiding development in Nigeria and Africa in general. Britain is one of only a handful of countries that fulfils the target of spending 0.7% of its gross national income on aid every year. So, in the same vein, shortly after the inauguration of President Buhari, the British Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Philip Hammond who was in Abuja for the ceremony, told the President that they were ‘waiting for his list’ of things he needs help with at the G7 summit. Helping in this way is better, certainly more convenient. Why deal with a problem on anyone’s terms when you can do it on your terms? That would be irrational, stupid even.
Buhari’s Wish List and Kenyatta’s Rallying Call
Thus, the expression of the President of Nigeria going to the G7 summit with a “wish list” was born. I found it amusingly theatric the first time I read about the wish list. It reminded me of a scene from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I could almost visualise the G7 leaders seated around a table like Don Corleone and then President Buhari walks in expectant and respectful. He would then speak in low tones about how he needed this for that and that for this. He would explain how this person was the hindrance and that situation was the problem. The G7 leaders would nod with empathy and say words like, “We will help you. Just make sure you do not do this and that. It is bad for the business of the family and our partners”. Buhari agrees and everyone comes out with smiling faces for the cameras. Back in Nigeria, Buhari extols the ‘tremendous sympathy’ of the G7 for the region.
I wonder what faces they would have had on when just a couple of days later, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta made a rallying call for African leaders to give up aid, as “the future of our continent cannot be left to the good graces of outside interests”. This contrast of opinions and approach from leaders of two of the biggest countries on the continent tells a bigger story. Between Buhari’s wish list for help and Kenyatta’s rallying call for an end to aid, one wonders what exactly is the strategy of African leaders for aid, and if there is even one at all?
What is the Strategy of African Countries on Aid?
There is a large amount of literature on development assistance. There are those who call for an end to aid like Kenyatta. Others criticise the practice of conditionality that accompanies aid, whilst yet others who support conditionality, go further to argue that the conditions are often the wrong ones or that they are not monitored or implemented properly. The one homogenous feature of all these opinions is the fact that they all talk about the strategy of donor institutions and countries. There is little or no talk about the strategy of recipient countries. Surely it is time for this to change.
In recent terms, there is a general impression that there is another scramble for Africa; principally for its resources, but also for its potential and opportunities. Unlike the previous scramble for Africa, the history of which is best forgotten but never will be, this time it is not just the Europeans. The East in the form of China in particularly is increasing its presence and prominence in Africa. It professes to have an agenda different from that of the West in terms of aid and general development cooperation. It does not care about the much publicised and berated issue of conditionality. It will deal with African countries without necessarily telling the various governments what to do, as the Europeans and Bretton Woods Institutions have since the 1980s.
The important thing is that the Europeans apparently know what they want from their dealings with African countries on aid or otherwise. The Chinese also do. The question then is, do African governments know what they want? What is their strategy generally in dealing with donors. Do they have one in dealing with China? Have they had one in dealing with Western donors over the years? If so, has this strategy being reviewed in the light of the relatively recent involvement of China in the equation? In what ways are the governments of countries in Africa planning to leverage the new scramble to deal with Africa for its benefit?
It would appear that in 2015, as it was decades ago, most African leaders are still content playing the role of passive aid recipients, without necessarily being proactive on the issue of development assistance. They appear to be just lying there with open arms, beneath the decision table, collecting what crumbs that fall to them, totally unperturbed about the implications of the decisions taken at the table before aid is given; the strategies, the motives, the significance.
Making the Most of the Moment
The new scramble for Africa is an obvious testament to the opportunities that the potential of the continent provides. But it is also an opportunity for governments of countries on the continent to become active in deciding its fate in dealings with willing development partners. With leaders like Buhari taking a list of demands for help to the G7, I can only wonder how many leaders in the continent understand the strategic nature of this moment in the history of the continent.
It may sound fashionable to show an understanding of the basis of western aid, no doubt endearing to be critical of it. But I reckon it is now time for African countries to put all that aside and become proactive in dictating the terms upon which it would cooperate for development with the West.
Whilst doing this as individual countries might yield reasonable results, no doubt a continent-wide effort is required. The African Union needs to take the lead in this regard. It needs to put together its own set of conditions under which donors should be required to deal with the continent in a way that benefits the countries in the continent, not just conditions that the donors consider beneficial to the continent and/or themselves. Such strategic policy document should serve as a framework within which individual countries may then negotiate the terms of development assistance agreements.