By Olufemi Taiwo
The latest 2013 edition of the Africa Progress Report has just been released by the Africa Progress Panel whose membership includes Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s former president, and is headed by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. Intense media attention has focused on the report’s lament that Africa has been receiving raw deals in negotiations with foreign investors doing business on the continent, especially in the mining sector. It contends Annan that “Africa can better manage its vast natural resource wealth to improve the lives of the region’s people by setting out bold national agendas for strengthening transparency and accountability.” Here is the question that anyone who is keen to see Africa free from the trinity of ignorance, hunger, and disease should ask is: if African, why is Africa not doing so?
This is a question that the press release [http://www.africaprogresspanel.org/index.php?cID=959] does not bring up, much less address. What it contains, instead, are platitudinous calls on “African governments” to “improve their governance and strengthen national capacity to manage extractive industries as part of a broader economic and developmental strategy.” Additionally, the panel urged that “African governments should put transparency and accountability at the heart of natural resource policies, secure a fair share of natural resource revenue for their citizens, and spread the benefits of this revenue via equitable public spending.” This would not be the first time that these exhortations have been offered to African leaders. They are mere platitudes.
Why do Africans and their leaders need a panel of eminent persons to know that they should be doing what any people and their leaders should do, as a matter of course, in the administration of their countries’ affairs: own their resources, exploit them for their collective welfare and the common good while ensuring an equitable distribution for all their citizens? This is what happens in other continents. I do not see the disparate countries of Asia evince a common desire of a similar nature. Nor do we have similar exhortations directed at South American countries.
The very existence of the Africa Progress Panel and its operation represent such a curious anomaly. From the preceding platitudes, the release segued into another familiar refrain of African life and thought: begging. There are appeals to outsiders to please have mercy on good Africans and not rob blind them when they can. Okay, they did not quite put it that way. They only asked that the international community put in place mechanisms to help Africa stem the tide of tax evasion and avoidance by foreign operators in Africa and for international business to please “follow best practices on transparency, help build national capacity, procure more products and services locally, and raise standards in all areas of corporate accountability and responsibility.”
In this appeal to, this begging of, the international community to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves is to be found the ultimate cause of Africa’s failure to march in tandem with the rest of the world in more than half a century of independence in most of the continent’s countries.
What was the panel thinking? As we say in Yorùbá, if you don’t take advantage of a fool when one is available, when do you think a wise person would let you? Corporations are not the Salvation Army. They are capitalist contraptions and profit-making is their primary reason for existence.
To go back to my initial question: if Africa can better manage its vast natural resource wealth to improve the lives of its people, why is it not doing so? Why does it, with such distinguished leaders as constitute the African component of the APP, not come up with a more solid diagnosis for these repeated failures? I disagree with the claim that Africa can. For if it can, there is no evidence of it in any part of the continent. We need a period of isolation from our “friends” in the international community, especially the aid industry, the perpetual commissions, panels, and the like, who all now cannot think of Africa except as a place of need where they are perpetually relevant.
Africa deserves the rotten deals it gets. I can only hope that the deals get more rotten in the years ahead. Agency is a very dangerous thing to exercise. We have not taken our agency seriously since colonialism short-circuited its expression when it aborted the transition to modernity that Africans, under their own steam, were executing in the early part of the 19th century once slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended.One of the most egregious instances of Africa cooperating in its own abasement reported by the APP involves “five deals between 2010 and 2012, which cost the Democratic Republic of the Congo over US$1.3 billion in revenues through the undervaluation of assets and sale to foreign investors.”
Who is to blame? The people who got the juicy deals? I think not. Unless, of course, we believe that the Congolese negotiators were victims of armed robbery or minors who were unconscionably dispossessed of their resources, we must conclude that they were fools who, as is usual, have been parted from their money. As bad as this sounds, what is worse is the possibility that the Congolese negotiators knew what they were doing and were convinced that what they got was the best they could get or what pretty much what they think their resources were worth. And that exactly is what the Congolese government has said in its pushback against the panel’s charge.
I ask: what is new? The “rain of unequal exchanges” did not start beating Africans only yesterday. We did not only recently start making bad deals. That Nigerians are eager to spend their patrimony on Dubai kitsch is only the most recent equivalent of age-old lack of self-respect that has been a part of our history beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Back then we traded whole human beings in their prime or on the cusp of it for half-drunk bottles of whiskey, beads, and suchlike kitsch.
A genuine recovery of our agency and the self-respect that goes with it can only come from our asking and answering the following questions: why are we so cheap? Why are we so eager to sell ourselves for nothing? Why does it come so easily to us to invite others to tell our story on our behalf and then complain that they tell it so poorly? Why are we content to have others exploit our resources and give us chump change at the end? Why does it come so easily to us to barter our resources for other people’s kitsch, be those colour televisions, smartphones, or automobiles?
Mallam Olufemi Taiwo is professor of Africana studies at the Cornell University in Ithaca, United States