You can almost always be sure that whenever there is an international meeting on Africa, and the issues of democracy and corruption come up, what we witnessed at the Tuesday opening of the African Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa) meeting in Nairobi Kenya will always happen.
US ambassador Michael Ranneberger criticised Africa in general, and Kenya in particular, for mismanaging its affairs, and seemed to lecture about how it could put its house in order.
Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a man who often shares the West’s view about what is wrong with Africa, took exception and said the continent had had enough of the lecturing from the West – the best measure of the offence that Ranneberger’s remarks had caused (Raila was applauded).
Both men were right. Politics in Africa is often better than the cynics who see a failed state everywhere think, but it is also much worse than the optimists who see success stories in every corner imagine.
In Kenya, for example, President Kibaki is regularly criticised for “not offering leadership” and being “too hands-off”, “asleep at the wheel” and so on.
The President, for sure, can be infuriatingly non-plussed, a Victorian trait from the Makerere days – that cultivated “gentlemen” are not dramatic and don’t get involved in every small dog-fight.
Part of the annoyance with Kibaki, once senses, comes from history. Both former presidents Kenyatta and Moi were steel-fisted rulers who brooked no dissent.
Prof Ali Mazrui once talked of the syndrome of the slaves who fall in love with their masters. So Kenya, it would seem, fell in love with the more authoritarian Kenyatta-Moi approach and still find democracy intolerably messy.
A few days ago, we got a glimpse of the classic African strongman during the trial at The Hague of former Liberian warlord and president, Charles Taylor.
When Taylor was criticised for allowing his soldiers to display human skulls at roadblocks, he was puzzled. He didn’t see anything wrong, arguing that displaying skulls was an effective method of getting people to obey soldiers’ commands!
There are more believers in the Taylor doctrine in African state houses, than subscribers to Kibaki’s.
Democracy, all its benefits notwithstanding, is not as universally desired as people like Ranneberger think it is. There are many graves and broken hearts of African democracy activists to prove it.
In many of our countries, a corrupt, tribe-mongering politician has twice a higher chance of winning an election, than an idealistic, honest, democrat who speaks flawless English.
Why is this? You can find as good an answer as any in a work by Alicia Bannon, Edward Miguel and Daniel N. Posner entitled Source of Ethnic Identification in Africa, that they did for Afrobarometer (the very useful series of national public attitude surveys on democracy, markets and civil society in Africa).
Published in August 2004, their study reported some very disturbing findings. One of the big problems, if not the biggest, that bedevils African politics is tribalism. The solution that is generally agreed on is exposure and civic education. Wrong.
The study found that, overall, the majority of Africans don’t identify themselves or see politics in tribal terms. However, the devil is in the details. In Africa, if people are educated they are more likely to identify themselves in terms of their tribe, the study said.
We quote: “Even a small amount of formal education appears to increase the likelihood that a respondent will identify him or herself in ethnic terms… “The salience of ethnicity also varies strongly with occupation.
Compared to farmers and fishermen, blue-collar workers/miners, students, business people, and the unemployed are significantly more likely to identity themselves in ethnic terms.
The effect is strongest among students, who are 12 per cent more likely to identify themselves in ethnic terms than farmers or fishermen.
One interpretation of this pattern is that strong ethnic identification among students stems from the competition that they know they will face with their fellow graduates for scarce jobs, and the role that ethnic ties may play in securing employment.
“We also find that respondents living in rural areas tend to be less likely than urban residents to privilege their ethnic group memberships.”
This goes against everything we believe in. In other words, African politics is more tribal (and corrupt) because of education, not the lack of it.
And the peasant in the village or fisherman on Lake Victoria, is better for our democracy than the CEO of a leading company on the Nairobi Stock Exchange or a university professor!