- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008


French President Nicholas Sarkozy addressed “Africa’s Young” in a speech at the University of Cheik Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal, on July 26, 2007. Africans widely and roundly criticized the speech, little noted by the U.S. media, as racist and condescending. Mr. Sarkozy offered up the “accepted” litany of difficulties confronting his “wounded continent” of Africa ” wars, genocides, dictators and corruption. He asserted that it was not the slave trade and/or European colonialism that gave rise to these problems, but rather, he opined, “that the African has not fully entered into history,” preferring to hold on to some “mythical past” rather than launch “himself towards the future.”

It would appear Mr. Sarkozy chooses to end African “history,” not like Francis Fukuyama in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather at African independence. He seems to argue that Africans missed this early universalization of Western liberal democracy and opted to pursue instead a return to a “golden age “of Africa that “never existed.” Africans, he implies, chose Hobbes’ “First Man” (solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish) over Fukuyama’s “Last Man” (free, universal, just, and reasoning).

Mr. Sarkozy is curiously silent on the effects of post-independence African interaction over 50 years with the international system, including the former colonial powers. It is more in that interaction, I would argue, that we discover the genesis of the problems that Africa faces today. We, African leaders, must make an honest appraisal of this recent past, acknowledge its darkness and accept and/or assign responsibility for decisions made and/or avoided. Only then can we shine a harsh, but cleansing light on the continent’s current state of affairs, permitting us to undertake necessary corrective action.

We must recognize that African states emerged from the colonial era with nascent political, economic and social institutions, an immediate and direct consequence of the colonial experience. The Cold War sent those institutions into stasis until 1989. The leaders of neither “West” nor “East” concerned themselves with the authoritarianism, corruption, stagnation or abuse that arose across Africa. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Africans were asked to demonstrate immediately democracy, free markets and tolerant, open civil societies. African states were expected to emerge like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, full-grown and clad in armor ” an improbable, if not impossible prospect.

Moreover, many of the challenges of the post-Cold War era African leaders are asked to address were not foreseen in the immediate post-colonial period. You need only consider the many and varied consequences of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, climate change and the globalization of trade and finance. Africa’s national institutions were not, and are still not, as yet sufficiently broad, deep or flexible enough to deal effectively with this range of varied and complex issues in a systematic and timely manner.

But addressing these concerns is not simply a question of capacity building. While it is true that African leaders can affect change through coherent national institutions that bridge the gap between the state and society, providing necessary services to the people, this assumes the leader has this as an objective. All too often, African leaders, faced with the choice of building an integrated national political process and permitting it to mature or retaining personal control, have chosen control, submerging collective goals for the sake of personal advantage and interest.

Weak institutions are not in a position to constrain such a leader’s ambitions and are more susceptible to facile manipulation. Many African leaders have been all too ready to resort to “neo-patrimonialism,” using the institutions of the state to deliver personal favors. Rather than imbuing society with idealism and a sense of possibility and responsibility, some African leaders fostered self-serving sycophancy focused on posturing, personalities and egos without regard or concern for the nation. It is all too easy to understand why many African leaders have not seen Cincinnatus as a role model, but rather sought to cling to the perquisites and trappings of power.

Africa’s greatest problem is failed leadership, in a moral not technical sense. No matter how many finely crafted International Monetary Fund/International Bank for Reconstruction and Development adjustment programs are put in place or how much development assistance donors pledge or how often “free and fair” elections are held, if this continent’s leaders are not prepared to serve the needs of its people, Africa will remain Mr. Sarkozy’s “wounded continent,” unable to affect an exodus from its plagues.

Faure Gnassingbe is president of the Republic of Togo.

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