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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Corruption and misrule

Andrew Rice of The Nation writes a good analysis of three recent books about Africa and its troubles. "The dispute is about causes and consequences," he writes. "One group--call it the poverty-first camp--believes African governments are so lousy precisely because their countries are so poor. The other group--the governance-first camp--holds that Africans are impoverished because their rulers keep them that way." Who is right?

The authors who try to answer this question include Martin Meredith ("The Fate of Africa"), Jeffrey Sachs ("The End of Poverty") and Robert Guest ("The Shackled Continent"). Meredith does it from a historical perspective, while Sachs and Guest attempt to do this from a more economical vantage point.

Much of the scrutiny falls on the dictator-despoiled countries of sub-Saharan Africa. "Tyranny in Zimbabwe, famine in Niger, a constitutional coup in Togo, rampant corruption in Kenya, protesters shot in Ethiopia, an epidemic in Angola, civil war in Sudan--those are this year's headlines, but if you think you've heard it all before, you have," Rice writes. All of these countries, save for Ethiopia and Sudan, are sub-Saharan.

Historically, what happened to make these countries so poor? The legacy of colonialism is certainly bitter; Rice writes that while the British left valuable roads and schools to their former colonies, the French and Portuguese abandoned their onetime domains with far less willingness and far more spite. And even the British weren't always so lenient; witness their actions in Kenya.

Then came a parade of homegrown dictators: Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic, Idi Amin of Uganda, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and the generals of Nigeria. Wars and disease (such as AIDS) have only worsened the problems; Rice surprisingly omits mention of the Rwandan genocide.

What can be done? Sachs makes the boldest assertion -- that Africa can quickly emerge from poverty -- and backs it up with simple proposals: "Use irrigation and fertilizers to increase crop yields; distribute mosquito nets to combat malaria and pharmaceuticals to lessen the symptoms of AIDS; give rural villages cell phones to ease communication and trade." He also urges Western governments to restrict or increase their aid according to how well a country governs. Rice, however, says that Sachs ignores the many previous efforts by others to remedy Africa's woes.

A final note. Rice ignores two parts of the continent that contain interesting ramifications. First, North Africa, and specifically Egypt. Second, South Africa. Egypt and South Africa are two of the rare "success" stories of the continent (I am speaking in relative terms). Sure, Hosni Mubarak is essentially a dictator, confirmed by a presidential election that is likely as fraudulent as any won by Mugabe or Saddam Hussein, and the economy is hurting. Yet thanks to 1.3 billion in American military aid each year, the country remains stable.

Next, South Africa. Rice mentions Nelson Mandela only once -- and only as a subject of one of Meredith's previous books. Despite South Africa's struggles with crime and AIDS, the country is a remarkable story of whites and blacks living together peacefully. The rest of the country could learn from the examples of its north and south.


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