How bad leaders watch on as Africa gets raw deal

Monday February 17 2020

In 1958, Chinua Achebe detailed in his first novel, Things Fall Apart, that there was an emergent clash between African cultures and the influence of white Christian missionaries.

This clash of civilisation was part of the colonial impact.

He told the story of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man and his friend Obierika during the time Christianity began to spread through his land. Obierika noted something sinister. "The white came… quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one."

Okonkwo’s unwillingness to adapt to the white man’s machinations makes him the immediate protagonist.

More than sixty years since the novel was published, the “white man” has won our leaders and they can no longer act like one. Africa is in constant conflict and is always falling into Okonkwo’s trap.

The continent seems to have never learnt or stopped to reflect the consequences of aid and easy loans that replaced the bible.


It pains to see the entire of African leadership collectively invited by different countries to the capitals of those countries to be lectured about the visions of the leaders of those foreign governments for Africa.

In October 2019 there was the Russia Africa summit. At the Summit, President Putin said, “We do not impose our views, respecting the principle of "African solutions to African problems" proposed by the Africans themselves.”

The Russians might not be imposing their views and Africans have never quite had their own solutions, but it is not lost on analysts that Africa is the second-largest market for Russian military hardware. Good thing Russia didn’t say it was imposing its weapons on the continent.


In August 2019, there was Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which attracted all African heads of state and in which Japan committed $32 billion towards infrastructure. Africa so happens to be the largest importer of used cars from Japan. Sub-Saharan Africa imports about 1.5 million used cars every year to the extent that the UNEP has equated the imports as exporting pollution to developing countries.

In the past, we have had the Sino-Africa summit in Beijing, in which China committed $60 billion to the continent. China today is the largest trading partner with sub-Saharan Africa. The value of China-Africa trade in 2017 was $148 billion, down from a high of $215 billion in 2014. At the Indo-Africa Summit in Delhi, India promised $5 billion. India is increasingly becoming one of the largest trading partners with Africa. Health tourism to India from Africa is in excess of $10 billion.

The French are not to be left behind. The 2020 Africa-France Summit for sustainable cities and regions is targeting all African leaders. This is beside the annual Franco-Africa Summit. Its trade with Africa in 2017 was $5 billion.

The agenda for visiting African heads of state, as in Okonkwo’s experience, is often not clear. It will only get deciphered after the fact.

Nonetheless, African leaders have never bothered to ask their hosts why the focus on Africa. Even by casual analysis, these hosts often take more out of Africa than whatever amount they pledge. Put in another way, African leaders export their wealth to receive less of the same.

Achebe was prophetic. In his later publication, A Man of the People, he was more emphatic with his message as told through the narrator, Odili, who represented the new intellectual generation, while his former teacher, Chief Nanga, was from the old school of politicians. As in current political, economic and social discourse in Africa, conflict between the old and new degenerates and, in the end, there is a military coup.

Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa, reveals Africa’s richness and failed leaderships that results into raw violence to sustain themselves, economic blunder and a web of collusions with developed nations to hide Africa’s resources.

The tragedy is that the author sees no hope in dealing comprehensively with kleptocracy in Africa. But you will understand coups are not a thing of the past, considering the impunity with which leaders treat their own voters.

Although there is a narrative of Africa rising, it isn’t quite true in a continent that places politics ahead of the economy. As the world moves towards middle class, data tells us that Africa is facing south. World Data Lab shows that of all the people who will exit poverty and join the ranks of middle class, 87 percent will be from Asia.

As the African leaders troop to developed countries and Newly Industrialised Countries (NICs) for a photo opportunity in foreign lands, they have never sat at the African Union to ask why everybody sees them as attractive.

If they did, they will perhaps discover that the individual tokens they bring back to their countries have no effect in moving Africa forward. Instead, they should collectively see beneficial projects that would enhance intra Africa trade for prosperity of the people.


In my view, since they are often invited as a group, they should present an AU memorandum, asking, for instance, for the construction of a railway that runs from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Such a proposal will instantly open up the Congo republics to the rest of the continent and the World.

In another invitation they could ask for a dual carriageway from Cape Town to Cairo. Then another request in a different foreign city might be a trans-Saharan Highway where in each of these highways there will be fibre optic cables and power lines to transport green energy from the 45,000 MW Inga Falls to the rest of Africa.

Africa heads of state have visited China, Japan, United States of America (USA), India, France and the United Kingdom (UK) on begging missions. Raising resources for such few but impactful projects will not be too much to ask. I assume these meetings focus on development and if that is the case, Africa should not be lagging in infrastructure.

In my dreams, I have thought that one day an African leader would invite European leaders to discuss the future role of Africa in the global economy. Even though the topic is important, my haunch tells me that they would not show up and if they did their media will perhaps ridicule them as a waste of time and resources.

There is value in leveraging African Union to open up the continent for intra Africa trade. The pre-colonial script has failed us. We could make the continent attractive investment destination without compromising our dreams. That is how we can develop better value proposition to the rest of the world.

Breaking down the boundaries to allow free movement of people in Africa with the best possible infrastructure is what will remove the tensions and conflict that Okonkwo referred to.

The writer is a professor of entrepreneurship at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.