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20 - 27 December 2006 
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The Sinking Sand in Trusting Politicians

On 14th December, the African Research and Resource Forum (ARRF) in collaboration with the Henrich Boll Foundation and media Focus on Africa (MFOA) hosted a public debate on Choosing Leaders: Dilemmas for Democracy in Africa and Abroad. The forum which was held at the Kenya National Theatre was in honour of retired Prof. Issa G. Shivji  of The Faculty of Law, University of Dar es Salaam.

The panelists included Prof. T. Mkandawire of UNRISD, Geneva, Switzerland; Prof. Mahmood  Mamdani, Columbia University, USA and Prof. Archie Mafefe of South Africa. Prof. Peter Wanyande of the University of Nairobi chaired the debate. 

There was general discontent on the current crop of African leadership. Prof. Shivji narrated the changing perceptions of Tanzanians about their leaders. Shortly after independence, they used to be referred to as the “wabenzi” or those who drive Mercedes Benzes. Later on, they became “wanaokula matunda ya uhuru” (Eaters of the fruits of independence). With the failure of the fruits of independence to trickle down to the common man, the legislators now become “wanaokula uhuru” that is, they had eaten the fruits of independence, finished them and had now embarked on eating independence itself. Tanzanians were no longer free. 

Disillusioned by the performance of the state during the multiparty inception debate, one Tanzanian of Maasai origin lamented to the commissioners: “if the one party state created a myriad problems: there is high illiteracy, diseases are rife and poverty abounds; won’t the increase in parties multiply the problems?”  

A participant said that it was time Africans stopped looking at their leaders for what they have done today, but rather trace their track record from childhood.  

“We are always told to vote in good leaders. How do I vote for a good leader when I have never seen one? The people I see are the same recycled material,” lamented another. 

African intellectuals did not escape the crossfire. A lawyer attributed Africa’s problems to its intellectuals.  

“African intellectuals have reduced themselves to peddlers and salesmen of Western products and ideologies,” he said. Another participant blamed African intellectuals for being think tanks for oppressive regimes.  

Pandemonium broke loose when one participant castigated the panelists for drinking bottled Dasani water. “Why do you claim to speak for Africans when you can’t drink water manufactured by African companies?” He asked. 

Another participant blamed African intellectuals for being out of touch with the local population. He said that they were not educating the common man as in Romania and Argentina.

“What is the use of a University graduate if he can’t forge solutions to the African problem from his learning? Why can’t University ideas help the common man?” He asked. 

Reacting to this, Prof. Shivji opined that the intellectuals’ major problem is not failure to educate people at the grassroots but rather failure to learn from the common man. To them, the common man has no wisdom to offer. Another participant intimated that intellectuals should be agents of change. He cited a number of intellectuals who joined citizens to demonstrate against oppressive regimes or went to the bush to fight. 

Prof. Mamdani attributed Africa’s woes to existing structures. He said that even in the US, the Native Americans don’t enjoy the bill of rights. There is a separate bill of rights for American Indians. He pointed out that the Nigerian constitution, by incorporating a federal character clause that makes every process quarter driven, has denied citizens the ability to exploit their full potential. 

It is increasingly clear that wealth creation in Africa is through political connections. Africans should recognize that poverty is a personal affair. They should relinquish hope in politicians steering them from poverty and take responsibility. It is you who voted the politician into power. It is you who believes that the government should solve your problems. It is you who doesn’t hold your government and intellectuals accountable. 

Take away as much responsibility as possible from the politician and hand it to the citizen. By so doing, the national cake will shrink considerably. Consequently, fewer people will clamor for it. In the meantime, Africans will be working out their dreams through personal struggle rather than pegging their hope on politicians.

By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer

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