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									Ethnic politics and life presidents as causal factors for the African economic crisis
by Dr. Bheki R. Mngomezulu Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) Email: [Presented at the Economic Research Southern Africa Networking Workshop, Makaranga Lodge, Durban 25-26 September 2008]

Introduction The narrative about the state of African economies since independence in the 1960s and 1970s is a tragedy. After many years of gruesome colonial rule, the advent of multi-party democracy brought a glimmer of hope that the African continent was embarking on a new path. Indeed, all seemed to be on course when African leaders replaced their white counterparts who had been at the echelons of power in the old political era. To some extent, the development strategies adopted by the new leadership “did not work too badly during the 1960s, when there were positive annual growth rates of all countries South of the Sahara, usually of the order of 3-4 percent, and substantially higher than this in North Africa” (Oliver and Fage, 1990:240). Thus, economic problems in Africa did not start immediately after the Europeans had relinquished power. Kenya‟s GDP for example grew at an annual average of 6.6 percent between 1963 and 1973. But from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s, several African economies started to collapse due to a confluence of factors (Onimode, 1988). In response to these ailing economies, International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) came up with economic rescue plans. They injected funds which were accompanied by stringent requirements epitomized by the notorious Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). Those African leaders who refused to adopt and implement these programs found themselves operating in an economic wilderness. The case of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is one of the very latest examples. The efficacy of the SAPs in reviving African economies remains a subject for debate (see Bunwaree, 2008:236; Adedeji, 2008:245; McCann, 1999:136). However, it would be erroneous and unjustifiable to give agency solely to outside factors and blame them for causing economic problems in different parts of the African continent. The present paper begins by summarizing key points in the grand narrative on


the reasons why African economies started ailing after independence and continued to do so many years later. It then looks at the role played by Africans themselves in sustaining and/or aggravating the situation. This is done in two ways. First, the paper specifically discusses the role played by ethnicity in destroying African economies. Second, it uses a few examples from different parts of the African continent to demonstrate the negative effects of African obsession with power on African economic development. This is then followed by some suggestions on how to move out of this predicament.

The grand narrative One of the explanations given for the economic problems faced by post-colonial African countries is that the colonial state itself started experiencing development problems in the 1950s, which weakened it significantly (Cooper, 2002). The infrastructure was narrow and the economy was almost entirely export-oriented. If this view is anything to go by, when African countries achieved their independence in the 1960s and 1970s the states that the new African leadership inherited were weak institutions not ideal for economic development. This means that at independence Africa was sitting on a timed bomb as far as the economy was concerned. Cooper (2002:5) puts this succinctly as follows: “The development effort of late colonial regimes never did provide the basis for a strong national economy; economies remained externally oriented and the state‟s economic power remained concentrated at the gate between inside and outside.” As the African leadership was still trying to find its footing in their new positions, some developments in the global economy disrupted their economic development plans. The increase in oil prices during the 1970s led to high inflation and sparked protracted depression in international trade. This in turn had adverse effects on Africa‟s economy. Those countries intending to maximize their incomes by exporting their agricultural and mineral produce were frustrated by the very low demand for their various products and low prices for which they were able to sell them. Simultaneously, African imports increased considerably and became more and more expensive. This hampered economic development in a number of African countries which had to spend their meager financial resources on these expensive imports. This, of course, does not ignore the fact that some of these imports were not basic necessities but luxury items such as cars, clothes and


many other commodities meant to maintain a high social status accorded to these leaders. It is in this context that authors like Ohaegbulam (1990:212) hold the view that “some problems of independent African states were of the making of the ruling elites who inherited and consequently Africanized the colonial state hierarchy.” The population size of various countries is said to have negatively affected the continent in two ways. Initially, the small population meant that there was not enough human power to play a meaningful role in the production of food and other commodity items that would have benefited individual countries. This view is in line with Walter Rodney‟s (1978) thesis that the Atlantic Slave Trade (AST) which preceded colonialism contributed immensely to the weakening of African economies a few years later by depopulating the continent, more especially West and West Central Africa. On the other hand, when the population increased, this resulted in the shortage of food. In other words, there were more mouths to feed than there was food available. Therefore large sums of money which could have been invested locally had to be spent importing food from other countries. This problem was further compounded by rampant urbanization (Ohaegbulam, 1990). Rural migration to the cities depopulated most rural areas while at the same time stretching resources and budgets in the urban centers. Those who remained in the rural areas also needed food supply because they were either too young or too old to till the land for subsistence economy. Natural disaster is also cited as another reason for economic problems in Africa. Examples here include the decline in rainfall starting from 1973, which hit a number of African countries, including Sudan and the horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia). One of the ramifications of this decline in rainfall was desertification caused by the livestock eating up grasses when there was no natural renewal as had been the case when it was raining regularly. In turn, desertification meant that no food could be produced anymore and this forced people to flee to other countries or run to the camps where international agencies provided food to the starving populations (Oliver and Fage, 1990; McCann, 1999). In cases where people fled to neighbouring countries, the resources of the host countries were stretched to the limits at a time when economic rejuvenation even in those countries was almost impossible.


Another natural phenomenon held accountable for lack of economic development in some African countries is the conspicuous shortage of a reliable form of energy to support industrialization programs. This thesis is predicated inter alia on the fact that coal, the major source of energy, was only produced in countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Morocco, Nigeria, Mozambique and Botswana (Oliver and Fage, 1990). These countries had to produce for both local consumption and export to the global market. Obviously, it was not always possible for them to meet these demands. Another problem was the nature of trade. Most African countries traded in similar commodities such as tea, coffee, cotton, sisal, palm produce and peanuts. This made their economies compete with one another. Some of these products fell prey to pests or succumbed to spoilage and therefore never saw the international market and therefore never brought any profit to the producing countries. A related problem is that sold commodities did not earn profit to their full potential. This was due mainly to the fact that African countries did not trade directly with their clients; they used middlemen, banks, shipping companies, warehousing firms, economic advisors and marketers. All these services had to be paid for and this reduced profits. According to the trajectory presented thus far, there is very little (if any) that the African leadership could have done to avert economic decline. Even when the role played by African leaders is acknowledged, the tendency is to apportion the blame largely to the colonial structures and institutions. As argued later in this paper, while this view cannot be summarily dismissed, over-emphasizing it would be a mistake. It is an irrefutable fact that most post-colonial African governments have been mismanaged, both deliberately and as a result of lack of capacity and competence. This contributed significantly to the continent‟s economic problems. When addressing this issue, Ohaegbulam (1990:212) posits the following: “the seeds of the misgovernment that has characterized independent African governments were sown in the colonial period.” In a way, there is substance in this view when one considers the fact that the colonial state did not give Africans an opportunity to directly participate in governance; they only implemented colonial policies imposed on them. Therefore when it was their turn to run their respective countries, they struggled to fulfill this constitutional mandate. To a great extent, they had to use their intuition on how to govern.


While there is credence in this line of thought, it would be inappropriate to overemphasize it for two reasons. First, not all white colonial employees left their respective positions at independence. Some continued to work for the new governments and are therefore equally to blame for Africa‟s economic problems. Oliver and Fage (1990:246) remind us that when colonialism collapsed the new African leaders moved into the offices and houses previously occupied by white colonial masters. Most importantly, “[they] were driven by the same chauffeurs in the same or larger cars, and had the same servants, administrative and technical officials, policemen and soldiers at their command.” For that reason, both black and white are to blame for Africa‟s economic situation. Second, African leaders made their own mistakes after taking over from their white predecessors. Some of the decisions they made had deleterious effects on national economic development and, by extension, halted the development of regional economies. The question posed in this paper is the following: what has been the role of ethnicity and the modern elite‟s obsession with power in the destruction of African economies?

Ethnicity and African obsession with power Very few people would deny the fact that economic and ethnic factors are inherently linked. To a large degree, this transcends time and geographical boundaries. It is true that Africans were not a homogeneous group during the pre-colonial era as evidenced in migration histories. But it is equally true that the divisions were not as rigid then as they turned out to be during the colonial period. Some authors (see Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1988) argue that the concept „ethnicity‟ itself was imposed by colonial administrators upon otherwise undifferentiated groups of people. This is true to the extent that the manner in which colonial agents drew ethnic and geographical boundaries was arbitrary. Proponents of this view also allude to the fact that this was done mainly for reasons of political expediency, that is, to ensure that Africans were confined into specific groupings and thus remained weak to be able to challenge the otherwise weak colonial state as a unit. Coquery-Vidrovitch (1988:59) conjectures that during the colonial period, both the administrator and the ethnologist combined their individual efforts in order to find a way of settling various migratory peoples. She argues that “it was at that time that the ethnic groups were, to a great extent, fabricated, both to facilitate political and administrative


control and for religious purposes.” But the paper does not pursue this debate, important as it is. Instead, it looks at how the African leadership embraced ethnicity and used it to run the new governments. Most importantly, how did this affect the economy? It is no secret that post-colonial ethnic politics in Africa was a continuation of the colonial machination referred to above. In Rwanda, the Belgians and the Germans used migration theories to widen the gulf between the Hutu and the Tutsi. They co-opted each group at different moments through inter alia education whereby one group had access to education when the other did not (see Ndikumana, 2006; Mamdani, 1996; Young, 2001). This resulted in a series of civil wars, starting in 1959. But when Rwanda obtained independence in 1962, the new African leadership sustained these ethnic differences as power changed hands between the Hutu and the Tutsi. This culminated in the outbreak of further ethnic conflicts in the 1970s and again in April 1994. As these ethnic conflicts continued unabated, national financial resources were diverted to sustain and, later, quell the conflicts. This happened at the expense of economic development. Another significant impact was that thousands of people were displaced thus negatively affecting production for both the local and export market. In short, the Hutu-Tutsi relations literally halted economic activity in Rwanda. In Kenya, British authorities used ethnicity to divide Kenyans. They dubbed the Mau-Mau a Kikuyu affair thus creating the impression that the Kikuyu were solely to blame for the political turmoil that engulfed the country from 1952 when the Mau-Mau uprising began. But a few years later, they turned the Kikuyu against the Luo, especially because Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the Luo Vice-President had good ties with communist countries while President Jomo Kenyatta embraced capitalism which drew him closer to the West. The new African leadership played into the hands of the British by sustaining these ethnic divisions. Kenya African National Union (KANU) was dominated by the Kikuyu and Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) was dominated by the Luo. When President Kenyatta died in 1978 the Kikuyu dominance in Kenyan politics took a serious knock. Ethnic politics dominated Daniel arap Moi‟s 24-year rule but not in favour of the Kikuyu as had been the case since the country‟s independence in 1963. Following the 1992 constitutional amendment that brought back multi-party democracy, Moi felt threatened that he could lose his position as President and thus surrounded himself with a


coterie of Kalenjins, “many of whom were country peasants trying to get in on every deal, the bigger the better, even when they had no idea of commerce” (Russell, 1999:73). Those who opposed President Moi were either persecuted or killed. This was the case for example with John Robert Owuko, a vocal and prominent Luo Minister of Foreign Affairs. He died under mysterious conditions in 1990 after having a heated debate with President Moi (see Cohen and Odhiambo, 2004). These developments had negative consequences on the economy. As the masses took to the streets in protest, state institutions like the police and the much feared special force called the General Service Unit (GSU) responded forcefully. These political disturbances scared potential investors. In Nigeria, both ethnicity and regionalism cast a spell on the country‟s economic development. In each of the different regions in the country, the dominant ethnic group wielded power and used it against the minority ethnic groups. Thus, the Igbo in the southeast led the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC); in the southwest, the Yoruba led Action Group (AG) while in the north the Hausa-Fulani led Northern People‟s Congress (NPC). But how did these ethnic differences affect economic development in Nigeria? There is an argument that ethnicity as a concept is not in itself necessarily deleterious to the dual process of political and economic development. However, “applied to a multiethnic state such as Nigeria, the notions of cultural separatism and internal colonialism tend to become apparent in the government‟s decisions on when and where to locate industries, schools and other socio-economic infrastructures in society” (Kalu, 1996:229). In this context, ethnic consciousness, not societal or national needs, has a propensity to determine where the investment is clustered. Moreover, ethnic identity, not competence or expertise in a particular field, determines who gets appointed into what position in the regional governments and parastatals. Cooper (2002:69-70) holds the view that instead of allowing a wide range of interest-groups to make claims on the Nigerian state, “the federal system focused power on the three regions, each governed by a party dominated by a single ethnic group and with the budgetary means to solidify its regional constituency.” Thus, ethnicity and regionalism colluded in the „bifurcation‟ the Nigerian state, to borrow Mamdani‟s (1996) phrase. African leaders were at the helm of things.


But why did ethnicity and regionalism gain new impetus after independence? This triumph could be explained in various ways. Firstly, some politicians used ethnicity to climb up the political ladder. Once in office, they reverted to it in order to prolong their stay in power. They did this even if their leadership was bringing down the national economies. These leaders surrounded themselves with their „homeboys‟ regardless of their administrative prowess. Inevitably, these ethnic appointments did not augur well for economic development. On the other hand, those with relevant skills but who belonged to less favoured ethnic groups were left out. In the case of Rwanda, for example, being a Hutu or Tutsi determined whether one would get a certain job or not – the issue of expertise in a particular field did not take precedent. The second and most important reason for reviving ethnicity is the fact that some African leaders became obsessed with power. To-date, the now notorious combination of ethnic identity and party loyalty continues to wreck havoc on African economies. These two determine who gets a particular position in government, parastatal, and even in the private sector. Those who feel excluded do all in their power to disrupt almost everything the dominant party and its appointees do in the name of economic development. As the saying goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. Political struggles between the ruling and opposition parties and disgruntled individuals adversely affect national economies and, by extension, destroy regional economies. The People‟s Democratic Party (PDP) has dominated Nigerian politics since the country‟s historic return to a civil government in 1999 (Bola and Akinteriwa, 2005; Falola, 2005; Udogu, 2005; Suberu, 2001; Diamond, 1988; Garba, 1987). President Obasanjo put PDP members in influential positions and used them to entice the electorate so that he could prolong his stay in office. Political appointees in the oil-rich South have been struggling to contain the militants who destroy oil refineries as a way of fighting the government and demanding a larger share of the oil profit. As a result, Nigeria‟s economy is not growing at its full potential despite the abundance of oil, which has a high value in the international market. Thus, competition for power and resources among Nigeria‟s 250 ethnic groups “has contributed to a turbulent political history that has helped to stall national economic development” (Africa Recovery, 13 (1) (June 1999):8).


Except for a few, African leaders do not want to relinquish power. By so doing, they trigger unnecessary political tensions in their respective countries. President Moi‟s vain attempt to push for constitutional changes that would have allowed him to run for the presidency for the third time led to many innocent deaths in Kenya. This affected the tourism industry, which is “the single largest export earner and forms an important basis of the country‟s economy” ( The same happened in Nigeria when President Obasanjo tried to extend his stay in office by changing the national constitution. Following the refusal of the government to acquiesce in his plan, he instituted a national purge against those assumed to have been instrumental in scuttling his effort. He used the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to advance his cause. This triggered violence and provoked the militia groups in the South to intensify their fight against government forces. As a result, oil companies from America, Holland, France and Italy either scaled down oil production or simply pulled out of the oil industry in Nigeria. Others continued operation but re-located their offices to other countries deemed to be politically stable (Crisis Group Africa Report, 2006). This had negative effects on the country‟s economy, especially given that America buys 11 percent of its oil from Nigeria. These economic loses could have been averted had President Obasanjo not been obsessed with power. Zimbabwe‟s case provides rather glaring evidence of the negative effects of this African leaders‟ obsession with power. President Robert Mugabe has been in office since the country‟s independence in 1980 but at the age of 84 he still refuses to leave office. Instead, he uses state resources and state institutions to sustain his political position. This does not only stop foreign currency from entering the country but results into the rerouting of the money already inside the country to fulfill personal agendas at the expense of economic development. President Mugabe‟s resolve to remain life-president has changed Zimbabwe‟s fortunes. Once regarded as Africa‟s basket, the country‟s citizens have been forced to choose between remaining in Zimbabwe to face hunger and migrating to other countries in search of a better life. Millions opted for the latter. Zimbabwe‟s national currency is now the weakest in the world. Although other factors have played their role in the economic downturn, this is no doubt attributed almost entirely to President Mugabe‟s obsession with power. But being a seasoned politician,


Mugabe pushes his personal agenda under the pretext that he still has unresolved issues with the West, more especially Britain. Uninitiated minds and ZANU-PF fanatics accept this propaganda unequivocally. Those who challenge it face the wrath of the police, most of whom are Mugabe‟s loyalists. As the police continue with their punitive measures, economic production is either reduced or completely halted. In Zambia, Frederick Chiluba ousted President Kenneth Kaunda during the 1991 elections and promised to entrench democratic principles in the country. He was a unionist who understood the plight of the masses. Therefore, when he made these promises the electorate believed him, hence his victory in the general elections. But once in office President Chiluba increasingly became obsessed with power and used state funds to sustain his lavish lifestyle at the expense of the national economic development. As his constitutional mandate drew to a close, he realized that he was on the verge of losing the much revered power. It dawned that he would no longer be in control of the state coffers from which he had looted during his term as President. This forced him to use state machination to sustain his position, regardless of the effect this would have on the country‟s economy. Although his strategy failed, the hysteria he instigated caused political tensions that were not good for economic activity in the country. It became clear a few years later that indeed President Chiluba‟s resolve to remain in office was motivated by personal greed. On 4 May 2007 the British High Court investigated the allegations that he used state funds for personal gains. It found him guilty of stealing £23 million of public funds. In his judgement, Justice Peter Smith revealed that Chiluba earned $100 000 between 1991 and 2001 when he was President but somehow managed to pay an exclusive boutique in Switzerland $1.2 million. (Pretoria News, 5 May 2007; City Press, 6 May 2007). Sadly, he stole this amount at a time when most Zambians were struggling to live on one dollar per day. Obviously, Chiluba dismissed the ruling, arguing that it “bordered on racism” (Business Day, 17 May 2007). But this did not erase the fact that „lootocracy‟ outlived President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire who stole billions from state coffers and was said to be richer than the country he was leading. Certainly, the Zambian economy would have been better had the amounts referred to above not been siphoned by the president. These and other life-presidents like


Presidents Hastings Kamuzu Banda and Bakili Muluzi of Malawi contributed immensely to Africa‟s economic problems. Therefore, while it is true that the factors discussed at the beginning of this paper are relevant in explaining Africa‟s economic situation, it is clear that at least some of the African leaders are directly to blame for the continent‟s economic problems. Therefore, if any solution to these problems is to be found, both internal and external factors have to be considered. But, African leaders should play a leading role in this endeavour.

The way forward When the East Africa High Commission presented its report on the possible integration of East African territories in the 1920s, it argued that any form of unification would have to come from locally. African leaders can draw a lesson from that report and start looking for home-grown solutions to the continent‟s economic problems. Levi Obijiofor‟s title: „The future of Africa lies in home-grown solutions‟ (2001) concurs with this line of thought. No Structural Adjustment Programs can fix African economies. African leaders themselves and their people should take a vanguard position in finding lasting solutions. The international community can only assist once the process is on course. As Kuzwayo (2007:30) reminds us, “necessity breaks all laws.” In many National Constitutions, the president is regarded as the Commander-in-Chief of the country‟s armed forces; defying his command amounts to high treason. However, given the manner in which some African leaders abuse this power, state apparatus like the police force and the army should refuse to be used by a sitting president to fulfill his personal agenda. After all, they serve the nation, not the president. African leaders should learn to be one another‟s keepers. If an African leader starts behaving in an abnormal manner like President Mugabe has been doing lately, other African leaders should sit around the table and call him to order. Failure to do so is relegation of duty and it forces the international community to intervene on their own terms. When this happens, African leaders tend to whine about what they call „foreign meddling‟ on African affairs whereas they are doing very little to address the situation internally. Chika Onyeani‟s seminal work Capitalist Nigger (2000) implores Africans across the globe to do self-introspection. The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM)


of the New Partnership for Africa‟s Development (NEPAD) framework is a good start. The APRM “seeks to raise the standards of governance and economic management in Africa so as to improve the livelihood of African people by promoting a governance climate that will encourage investment and development” (Murithi and NdingaMuvumba, 2008:7). This, together with the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) will hopefully create a good climate for investment and make African leaders want to leave a good legacy. However, unless factors like ethnicity and power mongering are addressed, Africa‟s economic problems will remain. Another area that needs urgent attention is rural development. Rural migration is one of the problems that contribute to food shortages and economic decline. The migrants (especially those with no employment) stretch the resources in the urban centers without contributing anything. Therefore, it is logical that national governments should invest in rural agriculture and improve road infrastructure to ease the transportation of goods. Moreover, governments should provide electricity to these areas to facilitate development and give people a reason to want to stay in those areas. Such efforts would achieve two aims. First, they would enable millions of people to survive on their own even if the different spheres of government do not address all their needs. Second, they would reduce the housing problem experienced by most urban municipalities; they would also reduce the number of shacks in both urban and peri-urban areas. A significant number of people flock to the cities out of necessity, not because they like to migrate. If their rural areas could be improved and if they could either secure jobs in those areas or be able to create jobs for others, they would rather remain in the rural areas than venture into an unfamiliar territory characterized by sometimes traumatic lifestyles and practices. In short, the African leadership should be proactive instead of being reactionary at best and indifferent at worse. The current practice whereby urban municipalities have more resources than their rural counterparts is counterproductive. It encourages rural migration into urban areas and this affects national and regional economies negatively.

Conclusion In conclusion, it is worth reiterating that Africa‟s current economic problems are not new. Abutudu (2001) summed up the African situation as follows: “Africa is a continent in


crisis. Manifested economically and politically, the crisis is multi-dimensional and has deep-seated historical roots.” For that reason, any attempt to address these problems should first draw from history. Through a systematic historical inquiry, we stand a better chance to understand when, why and how Africa‟s economic problems started. It is only after these questions have been addressed that we can hope to find solutions. Any attempt to address Africa‟s economic problems without tracing their history would be a futile exercise and would amount to a total waste of state resources. If the tone of this paper suggests that Africans should solve their own problems, the argument is not that the African continent should resist globalization and operate in isolation. Instead, the point being made is that outside assistance should find Africans already in the process of addressing their problems. After all, even if solutions were to be proposed by the international community, they would not work unless Africans subscribe to and embrace them. Moreover, even if development funds were to be donated, the economic problems would remain unless the factors discussed above are addressed. The context is a key factor in finding a lasting solution to a problem. Africans know this better than anyone else residing outside the continent. Middleton (1994:44) was on target when he stated that after a long history of being controlled by outside peoples, “Southern Africa can now look forward to a future where the majority of Africans can decide how to run their own affairs.” Indeed, the African leadership is running African affairs and implementing policies but whether this is for the better or the worse remains a subject for debate.


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Newspaper Articles „Chiluba faces asset seizure‟, Business Day, 17 May 2007. „Chiluba guilty of stealing £23m from Zambia‟, Pretoria News, 5 May 2007. „UK court finds Chiluba guilty‟, City Press, 6 May 2007.


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