By Matthew Ayibakuro
In the world, people are described in different ways depending on a range of factors not worth exploring here: White, Black, Asian and so on. When completing forms in Britain for instance, the categories get a lot more interesting – Black or Black British, Arab, Asian or Asian British, Chinese, Mixed, White and even an ‘unknown’ category for those who, well, do not understand their particular categorisation.
Countries are similarly described too, albeit in a more sophisticated manner. Depending on the level of development as indicated on UNDP’s Human Development Report, a country could be termed a low-, medium-, high-, or very high human development country. As expected, over eighty percent of African countries are in the low human development category. No surprises there. It’s a trend. It’s normal. On its part the World Bank classifies countries into four categories: low income, lower middle income, upper middle income and high income countries. Unsurprisingly economies in African countries fall into the first two categories, dominating the first in particular. Beyond these, fashionable descriptions of countries that are ‘not developed’ are not hard to come by; ’Underdeveloped’, ‘poor’ ‘third world’. . . .
However, the most prominent of all taxonomies is the blanket categorisation of countries into developed and developing countries. In Africa, our countries are developing countries. That is the way it is. It has always been that way, and it would probably continue that way for the foreseeable future. The origin of this classification of countries as developed or developing is debated, but it is generally understood that the term was introduced in line with the development drive of the 1960s in describing the relationship between newly independent countries, especially in Africa and those countries ‘vigorously pushing’ for their development.
‘DEVELOPING’. It is positive word. It denotes forward movement – progress. But what exactly are developing countries moving towards? Who determines the ultimate goal of this progress? What is the ultimate destination of their development journey? Will they ever arrive at that destination, and will they even know when they have arrived? In other words, will the current crop of perennial developing countries ever get to the point of being addressed as ‘developed’ countries, or being developed countries in fact?
Whilst it appears that should be ultimate goal, I am not sure if it would ever be achieved. Development theory has long moved past the economic development paradigm set in the 1960s where the development of countries could be measured by a simple calculation of GDP and other statistical indicators. Today, a country’s development is now measured by goals like political order and stability, equity and democracy with all its numerous attendant attributes, like free and fair elections and human rights and all the other globally-accepted high-horse sounding virtues that African countries are not known for. Perhaps African countries are not known for them because we do not know them, because our societies were not built on those foundations, because our culture and values are very different from these goals.
But no, I cannot think that way. That is the way only traditional ‘uncivilised’ people think. It is the reason we had to develop – modernise in the first place. So for over sixty years, African countries have been striving to develop, to modernise their countries based on the models of the ‘developed countries’. The strife appears perpetual. It is hard to see the finish line. It is as if the goals are being updated after every decade, depending on what big institutions like the IMF would call the ‘World Economic Outlook’.
At other times, we owe the change of goals to the genius thoughts of some smart nobel-prize winning individual, like in the 1990s when Amartya Sen declared that development was no longer about the economy or infrastructure, but about ‘Freedom’ – increasing the capabilities of individuals to be able to freely live the lives they can. This caught on fast and firmly too. The World Bank, IMF, UN and all the other big ships sailing on the ocean of development quickly readjusting their sails and headed towards Freedomland. And why not? Everything else that has, at one point or the other, being pursued as development could be easily subsumed under prerequisites for freedom – education, infrastructure, economy, democracy, political stability, etc. All these and more were needed for individuals to enjoy and express their freedom. Everyone had to readjust.
For the developed countries, it was easy. These are the things they are known for, the things on which their societies have experimented for hundreds of years and become so good at. In fact, I doubt there was a real need for adjustment at all. But not so for African countries. Even before many had driven lap one like in Formula 1 races, they came to realise many more laps have just been added to the race. More fuel than anticipated would be needed, more parts, more pit stops. No need to worry, the developed countries and the big development institutions would provide support – aid, technical expertise and everything else in-between.
In fact, they will even throw in some extras like annual reports to tell each country how good or really bad they are doing. Those annual reports – on corruption, on human rights, on human development, on the economic outlook – there are reports for almost anything these days, I lose count. But they are quite easy to use though, for Africans in particular. I will let you in on the secret formula in using them – just start from the bottom up. It won’t be long before your country pops up! Except of course, you are Botswana on the corruption index – they are the ‘miracle of Africa’ in that regard. Miracles! How we need them. If we are to win this development race, we would need lots of them. Perhaps more than anything else.
The most prominent beacon for developing countries right now is the Millennium Development Goals, according to which developing countries by 2015 should eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal basic education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, amongst others. It is worthy of note that the specific targets under each of these goals are often the barest minimum possible. Hence, even when a developing country achieves universal primary education, there is yet secondary education and tertiary education to be attained before that country would stand a chance of being considered a member of the comity of developed countries.
More so, with the rate at which technology is advancing, it would seem obvious that by the time developing countries get to the current stage of developed countries, the latter would be way ahead of the pile. Perhaps the determinant of development might then be the number of robots co-existing with humans in a particular country or the countries that own colonies in outer space. Exaggerated theory, perhaps. But the point is that in the current state of things, it would appear that certain countries – mostly African countries – are doomed to be developing countries – second class countries if you will, in terms of development – forever.
Some have suggested that the measure of development should rather be the rate of happiness amongst citizens of a particular country without particular reference to income, infrastructure or other such measures. The merits of theories like this notwithstanding, countries in Africa might just fare better under such standards. In any case, there is a serious need for a change in paradigm. Otherwise, developing countries will find themselves perpetually running a race where the strategy for victory is determined by their opponents, and the tape at the finish line also held by their competitors who may continue shifting it at will. There is no winning such races, not even for our long distance maestros from East Africa.
On the 20th of November, 2014, images emerged of federal legislators in Nigeria viciously attempting to scale a fence which was ironically supposed to protect the parliament from the less privileged citizens outside. I give a lot of credit to the least responsible but smart and fit few who actually succeeded in getting over the fence to the other sides. Less credit to those who, for obvious reasons not unconnected to the effects of their wealth on their mortal bodies, only thrived in shouting and shaking the locked gates to the federal legislature. The reasons for this rather disgraceful act and the justifications of it remain a subject of public debate. I do not consider joining that debate as worthwhile, so I won’t.
However, coming across those images recently, got me thinking about the concept of gatekeeping and the impact of gatekeepers on political leadership in various countries in Africa. In an academic context, gatekeeping refers to the process through which information is filtered through various channels before dissemination. Although the term was coined by Kurt Lewin in the field of psychology in 1947, the term has come to be associated with a lot of concepts in different fields – sociology, communications and political science, amongst others.
With regard to politics, gatekeepers are individuals and institutions that control access to positions of power and regulate the flow of information and political influence in a particular society. It would not be too so much of an exaggeration to say that gatekeepers are ubiquitous in countries in Africa, and everywhere else in the world. For instance, Seth Masket wrote of the effect of gatekeepers politics in America in a recent book. His study found that the backgrounds of people involved in local politics in California showed that lawyers and businesspeople who are usually strong potential candidates had no real advantage over anyone else due to the phenomenon of gatekeeping. Consequently, the people who appeared to have electoral advantages were those who worked for officeholders, are related to officeholders or have ties to political organisations and interest groups – the gatekeepers.
Recently, there has been growing interest on the impact of gatekeepers in politics in countries in Africa. Henning Melber’s book, Understanding Namibia: The Trials of Independence describes Namibia as a ‘Gatekeeper State’ – a term that is slowly beginning to catch on, whilst Alexander Beresford’s paper, Power, Patronage and Gatekeeper Politics in South Africa explores the operation of gatekeeping within the ruling party, ANC in South Africa. But what exactly is the impact of these gatekeepers, more popularly described as ‘patrons’ or ‘godfathers’.
Studies show that gatekeepers can actually use their position and power for positive purposes. For instance, gatekeeping can be used for the preservation of cultural values in society, as well as effecting positive cultural change. In an ideal situation, gatekeepers can also ensure the enthronement of responsible leadership in countries whilst simultaneously preventing corrupt and inept individuals from gaining entrance to political offices.
However, the role of gatekeepers in politics is probably best known for negatives rather than the seemingly idyllic positives just discussed. The political elite in most countries have constituted themselves into informal gatekeeping networks and with the use of formal institutions, perpetrated themselves in office – offices that are repeated abused through mismanagement and corruption. Amongst other things, the phenomenon of gatekeepers blame-worthy for the relatively small number of women in politics, the dearth of intellectual and charismatic leaders and the palpable lack of youthful leaders in countries. It is estimated that the average age of serving presidents and leaders in African countries is 61, compared to 59 in North and South America, and 55 in Europe. This does not howbeit tell the whole story when you consider how long most leaders in Africa have actually being in office.
Beyond this, perhaps the most significant by-product of gatekeepers is the stifling of innovation in leadership. With the ultimate aim of cleaving to power, gatekeepers are prone to being suspect of new ideas and change generally which may have the effect of loosening their hold on power either in the short or long-term. There is little wonder that the wave of innovation in technology and business and other sectors of society is being driven by the private sector with little or no input on the part of political leadership.
For development to thrive in countries in the continent, much attention needs to be given to the phenomenon of gatekeeping and how best to shut out the gatekeepers. The most obvious option is perhaps to break down the gates in totality. This will invariably require revolutionary stands and actions. Irrespective of the pros and cons of this response to gatekeeping, it has always been my belief that revolutions are self-fulfilling and would occur if and when they will. Forcing them to fruition is probably not advisable most times.
This leaves the dual option of avoiding the gates, thereby making them irrelevant whilst building new gates, new inroads to power. As the citizenry in different countries become more enlightened and economically independent, they will inevitably become more responsive to individual political manifestos and qualities and vote based on these, rather than voting based on political party affiliations alone. In time, the influence of gatekeepers which is often brought to bear through political parties will wane – in fact studies show that this is already the case in some countries.
Furthermore, valuable lessons can be learnt with regard to the creation of new inroads to power from the recently concluded elections in Greece, where the anti-austerity Syriza party won at the polls by campaigning basically through social media, blogs and other online resources. This method was adopted to bypass the impact of the gatekeepers in the country who had control over mainstream media and other conventional means of campaigning.
The entrenched nature of gatekeeping in politics in countries in Africa means that ‘keeping out the gatekeepers’ will not be achieved overnight. The imperative to produce knowledgeable and honest leaders that will drive development in countries in the continent however requires that the process commences in earnest.
By Matthew Ayibakuro
Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or’ Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, or ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow,’ ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’, and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.
It is about ten years now since Binyavanga laid down these wise words for fellows like me who are grappling with the challenge of discussing development in Africa to follow. His article is simply witty, mildly aggressive and funny at the same time – a refreshing read indeed.
Overall, the article demonstrates how complex the task of thinking and talking about Africa – knowing Africa – really is. For a continent of fifty-six countries with about one billion people and over 2,000 languages, it would require thumbing through endless literature on politics, economics, history, social science and anthropology to acquire a meaningful conception of the countries and peoples in the continent; some herculean task that would be.
Luckily, you may not have to go through all that stress. Nowadays, there are experts on Africa everywhere very eager to imbue you with their specialised knowledge of the continent. There are those who work for the ‘mother’ development institutions: the World Bank, UN, IMF, USAID, DFID, etc., setting the agenda and trends on what the continent needs to do to develop and alleviate ‘the people’ from poverty. If you are not opportune to meet these palatial people, then you are sure to gain insights from very confident academics working in some specially-funded development department in a Russel Group or Ivy League university. These people know Africa, its economy, politics, culture, problems and they know the solutions too. Some of them have actually been to Africa for a week or weeks, months or on the odd occasion, years. How can we therefore question their wisdom? I humbly don’t.
Beyond the academics, there are also experts who are part of classy think tanks located in one of the many posh capitals of the world thinking and talking Africa. You must have met or at least seen some of these experts. You cannot miss them on CNN or BBC or Aljazeera dishing out wisdom on the continent after some customary disaster in the horn of Africa or at its tail, or perhaps after the visit of a very important leader from another part of the world to Africa – what does this mean for the continent, how many people have died already from the disaster and how many more will die if nothing is done, what needs to be done now to prevent another disaster??? By the time the news anchor says, ‘Thank you for speaking to us”, all the answers are there. Time to move on, albeit leaving behind quite farcical conceptions of the continent that have made campaigns like the one depicted in the picture above imperative.
So, with all these experts guiding our thoughts and opinions, we have come to know Africa. We can also claim to be mini-experts now. We know some of the prognosis of Africa’s problems and can argue the solutions too. For Africa to develop, it has to collaborate with Western countries in trade, investment and technology, etc., so it can also be ‘modernised’ with tall buildings, railroads, and all the other beautiful things. Alternatively, you can argue along the lines of my personal favourite, which you are sure to come across when we mini-experts are talking about Africa – the problem of Africa is the west with its insincere aid, suspect business deals and capitalist corporations that keep exploiting Africa and disrupting its ability to develop on its own. Classic!
About a year ago, armed with the expert-driven knowledge and mentality that we all need to ‘help’ Africa develop, and equally passionate about the development of the continent, I decided my starting point would be to blog about my theories and thoughts about the continent. I was excited about the many things I would write about – how aid is bad for Africa, how financial institutions in western countries are aiding the perpetration of corruption in African countries, how China is suddenly becoming so prominent on the continent and the need to be suspect of their intentions and impact, and my preferred of all, I would blog on the theme of “Africa Rising”.
I needed to do some research. I started with Binyavanga’s article. Perhaps I should not have, as it delayed the commencement of this blog for over a year, but I am glad I did. In the months that followed, instead of writing, I ended up reading more articles and blogs and books, realising all the way how one could easily fall prey to the many undue generalisations, fallacies and (mis) conceptions about the African continent.
So, does starting this blog now mean that I have found the ‘holy grail’ to thinking and talking about Africa? Sadly not. What I found though, is that when we do not take the time to read and think about Africa as Africans, others would and are actually doing the thinking for us. If we do not start talking about this continent and the issues affecting it from our perspective, others will continue to do the talking for us and spoon-feed us their perspectives. It then becomes utterly ridiculous when we turn around to vehemently criticise their opinions when we gave them the initiative in the first place, and put ourselves in an undesirable defensive position.
It is on this note that I invite you to join this dialogue on issues of development in the various countries in the continent of Africa. Perhaps we will find the many answers we seek by talking about the few we now possess. In doing so, we will try, like Kwame Nkrumah posited, to ‘face neither east or west‘ this time around, but ‘face forward’ at all times.