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Columnists

We can save Africa from self-destruction

 

I watched a CNN bulletin on the Central Africa Republic crisis as human beings savagely killed others. A woman nursed a wounded man. The photography was so good that it looked like a scene from the 18th century.

Indeed some of our own deeds makes Africa look like her people though similar live in three different centuries.

While a few in Nairobi are developing 21st century mobile applications, in Bangui people are killing one another using 18th century weaponry like spears and machetes with support from 20th century guns.

Leaders in a dozen other countries are trying 19th century domination tactics. This is as a result of our exclusive and opaque approach to development.

Anyone who cares about Africa is in constant state of fear that conflict will arise any moment as it has happened in South Sudan. Even those countries that in the face of it look stable, tensions are rising because of inequality and exclusive development practices.

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Africa is by far the richest continent in terms of natural resources, but the poorest continent in terms of income distribution. There is a sea of people living on less than $2 dollars a day, but we are not able to account for all its riches.

In my mind many questions linger. Are we doomed to fail? Is liberal democracy the right thing for Africa? What about benevolent dictatorship and how do we get one?

The African discourse is changing to a more positive one, but Africans are still being exploited. The more the mineral resource a country has, the more the crisis often fuelled by invisible non-citizens.

Africa has not been able to leverage on its wealth to fight poverty. For example, in October last year, The New Yorker reported that “1,200 Zambians gathered on a sunny morning in August of 2012 to protest at Coal Mine Company, which is located in a rural southern province and, at the time, was owned by foreign nationals.

They were angry about the working conditions in the mine. The company had been cited several times by Zambia’s government for labour violations, and miners said that they felt unsafe working there.

They were also upset about annual wage increases that they said amounted to only a single Zambian kwacha—the equivalent of 20 cents.”

Resource rich Zimbabwe’s currency has been reduced to nothing even when commodity prices of diamond are high. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in permanent conflict over its vast natural resources.

From 1989 to 2003, Liberia was engaged in a civil war. In 2000, the UN accused then Liberian president Charles Taylor of supporting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) insurgency in neighbouring Sierra Leone with weapons and training in exchange for diamonds.

In all of these, selfish intentions run high. No one will clean our mess but us. We also must learn from past mistakes and create an inclusive future.

Unfortunately, we continue to encourage new and informal organisational structures of cartels that are exclusive in nature and often leave the majority impoverished.

One such structure is what I call fifth estate after the Executive, Judiciary, Parliament, and Media. These are extra ordinary individuals that we sometimes refer to as wheeler-dealers. Cartoonist Gado always depicts them in various forms.

They will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives. They thrive in liberal democracies, exploiting the good intentions of the Bill of Rights. They have money to afford the best minds in the legal fraternity and above all media gives them a wide path.

It is not by choice therefore, that we live in the same continent, but in different centuries. There are people who benefit from a chaotic environment.

Information asymmetry is the basis of abnormal profits in Africa. As long as foreign companies are making money in Africa, there will be no motivation to deal effectively with opaqueness in dealing with for example, the extractive industry. Due to the discovery of oil, Kenya is destined to join the extractive industry.

My prayer is that we do not over-rely on oil and under-invest in other sectors of the economy. This will expose our economy to the volatility of commodity prices.

When commodity prices fall, revenues also fall and many extractive industry projects become less viable. In times of high commodity prices there is a windfall – which in many countries is not often put to productive use.

The key to our future success is open data. Allowing citizens to access data in development projects including the extractive industry. It is only through openness that we can lessen conflict and build a sustainable and inclusive future for all.

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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