It is an honour to be on this panel with former Prime Minister Masheke of Zambia, Speaker Tyler of Liberia, Speaker Traore of Mali and Taj Hamad, formerly of Sudan. They are respected Africans. If there are differences on the panel, you will know whose views you ought to accept-- those of the other panelists. That said, what follows are some candid thoughts by a friend of all African peoples on the topics assigned to this panel:
Permit me to start by expressing support for former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan who reminded us this week on his way to the World Economic Forum in Davos that in the face of current world economic crisis, "(W)e need to ensure the poorest in the planet—who will be hardest hit by the financial crisis—are not forgotten. The US Congress is discussing a $825 billion stimulus package for the American economy this week. This compares with the G-8 Gleneagles pledge to find an extra $50 billion by 2010 to tackle global poverty—a promise still not met."
Mahatma Gandhi once said: " Poverty is the worst form of violence."
In Africa, this violence has raged against millions of people for generations. With it, other forms of indignity against human lives, such as the spread of some of the most deadly diseases and conflicts, have been imposed on some of the most vulnerable members of the human family, particularly women and children.
Here is what the plain-speaking Canadian, Robert Calderisi, who worked as an economist for the World Bank and other institutions, including the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), for many years on issues in Africa and clearly loves Africans, says about poverty generally on the continent in his 2006 book (The Trouble with Africa): "But Africa has suffered grievously over the last 30 years. It has more than doubled its population and lost half its income. Disease is spreading. School attendance is dropping. Vaccination programs are sporadic. Food security is uneven. And Africa is the only region in the world that has grown steadily poorer since 1970."
This is a shameful situation that threatens to worsen if the world fails to heed the advice of Kofi Annan.
The full effects of the present economic crisis on the world are yet unknown and the ones on Africa are even less clear. However, we know that the crisis will negatively impact foreign investment into, and exports from, virtually all countries. Ironically, since most economies across Africa are not yet well integrated into the world trading system, the impact of general trade and investment disruptions hopefully will not be as serious on them as upon many other countries. While the rest of the world focuses on themselves, what investment was available for African countries is likely to drop sharply. The developed economies this time must not reduce their official development assistance (ODA) to African and other developing countries during the economic downturn. Every effort should be made to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals.
Much of the blame for the current crisis goes to unbridled and "shameful" (to use the term of President Obama yesterday in describing some just-revealed bonuses) greed among some bankers in America, Britain and other wealthy countries. This combined toxically with far too little regulation of financial services and weak-wristed officials in protecting the investing public reasonably. Other factors, including asset bubbles created in part by central bankers, contributed to the general loss of confidence . A less noted cause of the crisis, in my opinion, is the issue of accountability, or absence thereof.
Accountability and Corruption
Corruption exists in every nation, including Canada, to lesser or greater degrees. In Africa, the issue of non-accountability has been manifested in decades of widespread corruption.
I refer here again to Calderisi's book. The Nigerian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, is quoted there on this topic in wide-hot prose: "African dreams of peace and prosperity have been shattered by the greedy, corrupt and unscrupulous role of African strongmen…a power-crazed and rapacious leadership who can only obtain their egotistical goals by oppressing the rest of us.
Calderisi has been visiting African countries extensively since 1975, including Tanzania in the 1970s and the Ivory Coast in the 1990s. He says openly that most Africans are heroes, "coping with obstacles that would have flattened the spirits of others". He sees bad governance as the largest of the obstacles to better days for many across the continent. Both of us firmly deplore the fact that these and other obstacles deprive the one-tenth of humanity living in 54 African countries of material improvement in their lives.
One relatively effective means of curbing corruption in Canada and other nations is the presence of a judicial system, which is determinedly independent of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Rule of Law and Independent Judicial Systems
Here are some of Calderisi's thoughts on the judicial system in some African countries, although similar problems are easy to find elsewhere in the world: "A corrupt judicial system is another milestone around Africa's neck. In fact, dishonest judges are as bad as the dictators.
Efforts to clean up the judicial system—training judges, computerizing records, strengthening the role of clerks—have borne little fruit because the politicians have found it more convenient to have a crooked and malleable judiciary than an independent one. As a result, although numerous judges have gone to France, Canada and the United States for professional courses, many have returned to their sordid practices once they were back on the bench. In this, as in other respects, South Africa has been the sterling exception."
My own understanding is that there are a number of other African nations which have independent and honest judges. I 'd urge our African friends to seek ways to strengthen the rule of law across the continent in part by enhancing the independence of their judicial systems to ensure that corruption and other violations of public trust do not continue to contribute to widespread poverty.
Interfaith/ Inter-community Conflicts: Case of Sudan
The issue of interfaith/inter-community conflict is also a difficult topic to deal with briefly in a general way, so let me refer to Sudan, from which lessons can perhaps be drawn for other peoples both within and beyond the continent of Africa.
The ongoing genocide in Sudan's province of Darfur since April 2003 has in all probability cost the lives of as many as 400,000 African Darfuris. Millions have been driven from their homes, causing a major humanitarian crisis in the region. Sudan's government has "orchestrated and participated in" war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, according to a report by UN investigators made on 6 June 2005.
The report to the UN Human Rights Council said the situation in Darfur is "characterized by gross and systematic violations of human rights and grave breaches of international law". It called for the UN Security Council to take "urgent" action to protect Darfur's civilians, including the full deployment of a joint UN/African Union force and the freezing of funds and assets owned by officials complicit in the attacks.
Tears of the Desert
Permit me here to recommend the book Tears of the Desert, by Salima Bashir. Dr. Bashir last year wrote the first memoir by a woman caught up in the ongoing Darfur genocide. A member of the Zaghawa African community, she was working as a village medical doctor when the Janjaweed Arab militias, with the support of the Sudanese government military, began attacking the Zaghawa savagely. In 2004, they raped 42 school girls--some as young as eight--and their teacher, who were treated by Dr. Bashir. When she broke the rigidly-enforced silence about what had happened, a horrifying sequence of events occurred to her. Her book is yet another eloquent call to action by the international community.
Wole Soyinka participated a year or so ago as the Chief Justice in a simulated trial here in Manhattan of Sudan's dictator-president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He and the other judges unanimously found Bashir guilty of all charges.
Canada, the United States, the UK and the EU have repeatedly condemned the atrocities, but have failed to carry out any of their numerous threats against the regime in Khartoum. None of the resolutions passed by the Security Council regarding Darfur has been implemented adequately.
During the American presidential election campaign last year, the Democratic nominee and ultimate winner Barack Obama promised that he would provide helicopters and logistics support to the African Union (AU).
According to the respected columnist Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times on Dec 28th, among other initiatives the Obama administration could take to stop the genocide in Darfur are:
- jam for two days all communications in Khartoum. This would include all telephone calls, all cellular service, all Internet access.
- apply progressive pressure to Port Sudan, from which Sudan exports oil and thus earns revenue.
- target Sudanese military aircraft that defy a United Nations ban on offensive military flights in Darfur.
Our African friends will understand and appreciate that such proposals as outlined by Kristof reflect a much-shared frustration among members of the international community on the lack of progress and a strong desire for resolution over the most atrocious human tragedy in this new century. World leaders, including President Obama, can and should do more. Indeed, Kristof added in his column: "Officials frustrated by the (Bush) administration's passivity shared these possible steps with me, partly to make clear that Mr. Obama can do more if he has the political will."
By coincidence, I observed part of the last meeting of the Organization of African Union (OAU) in Addis Ababa in early July, 2002. While working as Canada's Secretary of State for Africa and Latin America between 1997 and 2002 and ever since, I have followed the progress of the successor African Union (AU) as closely as possible. Permit me to say that one of its finest moments to date in my view was when it declined to allow the dictator-president of Sudan to become its chairperson last year. Like many across Africa and the world, I applaud such a principled act.
Towards Brighter Days
There some good reasons for optimism about brighter days ahead for Africans. Multiparty democracy has now swept through much of the continent. Even by 2000, 32 out of 54 African heads of state had been chosen in elections against rivals backed by opposition parties. In 1975, only three heads of state were chosen that way. Over the past eighteen years, moreover, more political parties have been founded in Africa than at any time since decolonization; democracy has taken root in many countries.
One lesson from Africa as elsewhere is that economic renewal and democratization best go hand in hand. Botswana and Mauritius have experienced the highest long-term growth rates, while also enjoying the longest period of democratic governance. Certainly, a dysfunctional government, even if produced democratically, cannot provide the transparent and accountable decision making needed to achieve economic progress. Positive growth has returned to Benin, Ghana, Mozambique and South Africa, where the resurgence of democracy has been strong. Those having the most difficulties during the 1990s were not cases of failed democratization but failed governance.
Another encouraging development for democracy across Africa is the resurgence of civil society, which has been at the forefront of the struggles to dislodge authoritarian regimes. It is in states everywhere where civil society and independent media are weak that the greatest challenges to genuine electoral competition and accountability exist.
Some of the other reasons for optimism about Africa on which Calderisi and I both agree strongly include the following:
1- Africa's talented people. The continent has had seven Nobel Prize winners and there are probably hundreds of other potential ones emerging in fields such as science, medicine and economics. If conditions allow, many daughters and sons of Africa in the diaspora are ready to return to the continent.
2- One route to success is to unleash talent and enterprise among Africans regardless of regional or ethnic origin. This must be done in such radical ways that it will attract attention at home and abroad as in the oft-cited cases of Botswana and Mauritius.
3- Africans are not condemned to live under dictatorships or imitations of the rule of law, dignity and multiparty democracy. They can demand much more of authoritarian or incompetent governments without resorting to bloodshed. Peaceful civic resistance can lead to durable democracy and often has, especially in recent years.
4- Friends of Africans abroad can champion independent media, supporting organizations like Reporters Sans Frontiers, and placing emphasis on improving primary education and fighting HIV/AIDS.
5- The approximately 40 percent of the African continent's savings held abroad is potentially available for investment in the any of the 54 countries, which have good governance and the rule of law. The continent continues to enjoy the good will of many governments, NGOs and charities.
Former US president Bill Clinton said that "global poverty is a powder keg that could be ignited by our indifference." In response to his warning, I would like to quote French-born American writer Anais Nin in saying "If all of us acted in unison as I act individually there would be no wars and no poverty. I have made myself personally responsible for the fate of every human being who has come my way."
To defeat the violence of poverty in Africa and elsewhere in the world, all of us as members of one human family need to take responsibility for every human being who comes our way. It is our shared responsibility to help build governance systems that encourage accountability and deter corruption by strengthening the rule of law and respect for human dignity. Only when we achieve this solidarity will we build a world of peace.