The following is an excerpt from an interview published by Dnevnik, Dnevnikov Objektiv newspaper on the subject Africa-Poverty of Wealth on 11.11.2006. The full interview which covers a broad spectrum of current issues in Africa will be published on the IREN Website (http://www.irenkenya.com/). Talking to Kristina Bozic, James Shikwati, the Director of Inter Region Economic Network (IREN), examines the benefits that accrue from setting up functional institutions in any country.
Q: If an African leader tries to stand on his own and say (to a developed country): “No, you are wrong!” He is often portrayed as a dictator. It has happened to Zimbabwe and lately, some people fear that the same process is happening in Uganda.
A: If you take African problems out of Africa, like dealing with Uganda without dealing with the whole Africa, then you miss a lot. But as you start comparing, then you see a pattern. Right from the 1960s. Whenever there has been a major African leader, something has happened. He is turned into something else until he is kicked out. If the leader only nods to foreigners, he is good. Most of them will nod at first, but slowly they start realizing that they are supposed to serve their country. Suddenly, everybody starts questioning what is coming up. The once popular leader is turned into a villain. I have seen how when one makes a stand, even in a conference, his friends from developed countries change positions. They begin to say, “We don’t like James” or “How can James make that kind of argument?” They expect you to think like them but get surprised when you tell them “No, I don’t agree with you.” They cut communication with you and start talking with someone else. I see it happen, but it is not going to happen for ever. That is the good news. Africans are discovering the pattern.
If you really want to help, why should you disorganize governments? Why should you kick out some leaders for not agreeing with your philosophy? Some leaders end up imprisoning those who show them dissent. You have a new idea but his vision does not capture it. Suddenly, you are a bad person. Balancing this is the most difficult thing. People should not focus on the government as the solution to their problems but on themselves. They should focus more on private initiatives. If we create that situation, it will not be easy to disorganize our leadership or bring a country down, as the political system will not be having big power to ruin the country.
In most African countries, politicians, in fact the president, hold the whole country. The rule of law is almost absent. Institutions are not there. You mess up the president; the country is in a mess. This works very well for the donors because they do not like a situation where they have to negotiate with many people if they want to mine or get oil. They want a situation where I say “Yes” over a glass of wine and that is the end of it. They have a deal.
If we build institutions in Africa, they will not have that any more. They take wine with me, and I tell them I will report to some committee, which will decide. They will not like it. That is why we are suspicious. They do not mean well for us. Democracy will slow them down. Democracy will involve many people in the decision. That means more time.
The scenario we are setting up is to say goodbye to this aid business, develop business, enhance efficiency and create an institutional way of functioning. When it is institutional, it will be safer for other countries to do business with Africa. If the head of state dies or his party fails in the next elections, the business is safe, as it has been done institutionally, not politically. In Africa today, if the head of state goes, he goes with almost everything. When another one comes, everybody has to start negotiating again. This is expensive. I do not know why Western countries do not see this. It scares them. In some democracies in Africa, there are unpopular presidents but they stay in power as interested parties keep them to safeguard vested interests. This concept of democracy is warped. If we say: “No aid!” we shut the doors. We start talking business. In the long run it is better for everybody, because once the deal is negotiated, it will not matter who has the power.
That is the kind of Africa we are looking at and it is going to be good for developed countries as well as Africans. At the moment, if one succeeds in business, the president gets scared that you are going to be the next presidential candidate. When people get wealthy, politicians fear, attack their business or demand to become shareholders. Through institutions, we reach a level where to be big does not mean you are a politician. This can be achieved by kicking aid out. Aid means that to be big, you must be a politician, because aid money goes to the government. And the “committees” take a percentage for their decisions. Wealth is in this sense not a consequence producing something but being in politics. We need an environment where wealthy people in Africa will say: “This is my product, it has made me rich.”
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