Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Review from London's Financial Times

The Challenge for Africa: A New Vision
By Wangari Maathai
The image of sub-Saharan Africa projected to the world veers between extremes. Often the news agenda is doom-laden, drawn from countries where subsistence is threatened. Zimbabwe’s free-fall absorbed more space in the mainstream UK press last year than the rest of the continent put together. Many successful Africans feel unrepresented.
Until the global economic crisis, however, another narrative was taking hold: after years of stagnation and crisis, Africa was doing better. Democracy was taking root. Improved policy environments and the commodity boom were generating the fastest expansion in generations. The few lingering disasters, Zimbabwe among them, were exceptions, not the rule.
Recent trends have indeed been more positive. But this rose-tinted version of Africa was also unsatisfactory. It presented the democratic veneer that multiparty elections provide to entrenched elites as genuine transformation; it glossed over the reversal of political freedoms when these took place. It also underestimated the fragility of economic gains.
Generalising about the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is problematic but Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s Nobel prize-winning environmentalist, does it admirably in The Challenge for Africa. Beyond the anodyne title is a penetrating assessment of the corrosive legacy of Africa’s history on its inhabitants, and the failure of most contemporary African leaders to rise to innumerable challenges.
Maathai unveils a 21st-century manifesto for Africans, drawing on her own experience as a worldly Kenyan, street-fighting activist, member of parliament and, from 2003 to 2006, government minister. Her analysis is thorough. She reaches into African history, culture, psychology, contemporary politics and also – from a woman recognised internationally for her tree-planting campaign – into the threat to fragile ecosystems. Using country-specific tales, she tackles issues shared by much of the continent. Her vision defies categorisation into either Afro-pessimist or Afro-optimist camps.
Africans are hurtling towards a potentially tragic future of environmental desolation, poverty and ethnic conflict, she says, led by self-serving inheritors of political systems designed to exploit rather than serve. But escape is possible.
Maathai is one of the few ministers to emerge from President Mwai Kibaki’s Kenyan government with her integrity intact. She abandoned the ruling party and was voted out of parliament in 2006. She is now an outsider, writing with authority but never hectoring or polemical. The transformation she advocates requires more than just changing leaders or collective popular courage. It requires a profound examination of what it means to be an African today.
Fifty years after gaining independence from Europe’s colonial powers, and nearly two centuries since white missionaries arrived, it has become fashionable to absolve western powers of blame. The Challenge for Africa is a poignant counter to the suggestion that nations can so readily shake off their history.
Disconnected from their culture and forced to swallow religious, political and economic prescriptions from the west, Africans are still struggling to assert their own identity. This environment continues to make them “vulnerable to exploiters and to being exploiters themselves”. It also undermines the benefits of western aid, which, Maathai argues, erodes governments’ capacity to take responsibility for people’s welfare.
“What these well-meaning development specialists, philanthropists, politicians and others perhaps don’t fully appreciate is that indigenous or colonised people have been living a split life for centuries,” she writes.
They also form a jumble of what Maathai calls micro-nations, artificially united by colonial boundaries. Rather than challenge borders or sweep away ethnic identity, the solution, she argues, is to recognise and institutionalise diversity, for example by creating upper legislative houses giving voice to all ethnic groups.
This is one of many ideas. Most of them require a “revolution in leadership”. A quarter of humans may be inherently crooked, she writes, a quarter inherently honest and the rest go with the flow. The implication of her analysis is that the flow in Africa is still with the crooked – but she has few solutions on how to prise out the crooks.
This is, nevertheless, a book that gives substance to the hollow mantra of African solutions to African problems and provides a powerful case for Africans to take their own destinies in hand.
William Wallis is the FT’s Africa editor
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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