African Union

by Christopher Rutledge

AS THE leaders of Africa gathered 50 years after the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Africans went about their daily struggle to put food on the table.

I was starkly reminded of the widening gap between Africa’s political and economic elites and the people living in poverty across Africa when departing from the Lilongwe airport in Malawi last month. The red carpets had been laid out and the entourage of President Joyce Banda was in full preparation for her departure to Addis Ababa to attend the African Union summit.

Banda had been in the news for all the right reasons, having sold the presidential jet and a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles to appease international donors (donors make up about 40% of Malawi’s budget and had reduced aid to Malawi by up to 80%), who had objected to the purchase of the jet by her predecessor. This gesture of austerity was immediately rewarded by its major donors, and soon aid money was filling the coffers of the state. Some commentators quipped that Malawi was transforming from a “God-fearing country” to a “donor-fearing country”.

What struck me as I watched the pomp and ceremony unfold is that despite the grand gestures of austerity, African leaders thrive on surrounding themselves with the trappings of power and prestige. Banda’s entourage of more than 20 luxury vehicles, the red carpets, almost 1,000 people who had been bused in to bid farewell to the “austere” leader, the presidential guard, army bands and TV crews, all belied the claim of austerity that has been imposed on the people of Malawi, which has one of the lowest per-capita income rates in the world and where its people live in poverty and suffering.

This reality is true for most political leaders across the world, but especially relevant to African leaders, whose citizens are still the most deprived and economically destitute. In 2009, 22 of 24 nations identified as having “low human development” on the United Nations’ (UN) Human Development Index were in sub-Saharan Africa, and 34 of the 50 nations on the UN list of least developed countries are in Africa. In many nations, per-capita gross domestic product is less than $200 a year, with the majority of the population living on much less. Africa’s share of income has been dropping over the past century by any measure. In 1820, the average European worker earned about three times what the average African did. Now, the average European earns 20 times what the average African does.

The future is bright, they say. Yet, to the majority of people living in poverty, the benefits of donor aid and economic progress are yet to be felt as African leaders monopolise the wealth of the countries they are supposed to lead out of poverty.

African leaders have made grand gestures of political unity but have failed to make the grandest gesture of all, political autonomy. Kwame Nkrumah’s vision for “one continent, one people and one nation” was to be the political sugar that helped the economic medicine go down, even though it was Nkrumah who argued that colonialism had merely made way for a type of neocolonialism.

Nkrumah argued that the “essence of neocolonialism is that the state which is subject to it, is in theory independent and has all the trappings of international sovereignty. In reality, its economic system and thus its political system is directed from outside”. Fifty years after the formation of the OAU, Africa remains firmly in the grip of the international economy. From the weakest and poorest states, to the “sub-imperial” states such as SA, whose economic and trade tentacles have reached into and across Africa, the agenda of development and economic progress is still set and determined from outside. SA’s close links to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been well documented and its critics have pointed out that its National Development Plan has largely been predicated on the neoliberal policies of those organisations.

Perhaps this is the reason African states, and heads of states in particular, feel the need to announce their prestige and power to the world by splashing out on jets and fleets of luxury vehicles. Perhaps it is their lack of real sovereignty over their economies that dictates the over-emphasis on pomp and ceremony.

If only African countries would stand up and be counted in the matters that really count to their people, then perhaps we could shake the shackles of neocolonialism and truly achieve the vision of a united Africa.

• Rutledge is mining extractives co-ordinator at ActionAid SA.