Commissioning Africa for Globalisation: Blair’s Project for the World’s Poor
NEPAD and Africa’s Leaky Begging Bowl
George B. N. Ayittey
Misrule in Africa: Is NEPAD the Solution?
Democratisation and the Constitutional Imperative
John Mukum Mbaku
Rethinking Pan-Africanism in the Search for Social Progress
Institution-Building and Development in Africa
Africa’s Debt Crisis: Looking Back and Looking Forwards
The HIV/AIDS Pandemic in Southern Africa: Implications for Development
Women and the Politics of AIDS in Africa
Brooke G. Schoepf
The International Dimensions of the Congo Crisis
Talk Left, Walk Right: Rhetoric and Reality in the New South Africa
Communal Violence and the Future of Nigeria
Apartheid’s Lingering Shadow
Revisiting a Wounded Country
Volume 6 ● Number 3–4 ● Summer/Autumn 2004—Africa in Crisis
Misrule in Africa: Is NEPAD the Solution?
Intellectuals with an interest in Africa, both in and outside the continent, are undoubtedly in dire need of a refurbishment of the ideological space in which Africa’s future can be discussed. The end of apartheid and the Cold War, coupled with the dramatic acceleration of political and economic crisis in most African states during the 1990s, left many Africa specialists reeling, reliant on frameworks whose relevance has been sharply challenged both by events and by revisionist examinations of modern African history.
The rising stock of Afro-pessimism, of strongly negative assessments of Africa’s current state, both as a scholarly platform and as a multifaceted public discourse, has been particularly marked over the past decade. Africanist scholars frequently condemn Afro-pessimism, and in truth the writing about Africa that is most readily identified as such often presents an inviting target, whether it is the relatively superficial racial provocations of Keith Richburg’s Out of America, or Robert Kaplan’s fly-by tours of global sites of anarchy and chaos.1 But in another sense, Afro-pessimism has won the battle for the right to represent African realities to the rest of the world because of its uncompromising ethical clarity about the state of affairs in most African nations.
To be sure, many of the more detailed objections to Afro-pessimism are valid. Yes, there are national or regional successes in the midst of failure in Africa. However, despite a cottage industry of political scientists busily trying to divine the magic secret variable that sets Botswana or Mauritius aside, there is little that can be satisfyingly said about the causal roots and possible reproducibility of such relative oases, nor do such exceptions call into question the depressing generalisations about post-colonial Africa. As Frederick Cooper notes, we should not understand post-colonial Africa in terms of its worst-case scenarios, but neither is there much to see at “the other end of the spectrum”.2
And yes, as some note, overwhelming images of poverty, conflict and corruption in Africa do not capture the vibrancy and complexity, as well as the sheer normalcy, of everyday life in most African societies. However, about what society, in what time or place, could this not be said? People live except when they die, and when they live, they live in all the complicated ways that human beings live. Living people make meaning and exercise agency much as they eat, drink and defecate. How exactly they make meaning and exercise agency is important, and always worth knowing. Such knowledge should not be obscured by the relentless drumbeat of simplistic Afro-pessimism, but neither does pursuing it require deferring the burning and usually depressing challenges that contemporary African realities present to modern global society.
The NEPAD Debate
The reaction to NEPAD strikes me as a good demonstration both of how stagnant the discourse about Africa’s prospects had become in the 1990s but also of how necessary it is to go beyond NEPAD’s timid salvage work amid the wreckage of African nationalism and post-colonial state-building. NEPAD is something of a disappointment to many, and for good reason. The studied pragmatism of its founders, the masters of what Frederick Cooper has called “the gatekeeper state in Africa”, mimics the calculatedly bland execution of “third way” politics by figures like Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, and so closes a dialogic loop between NEPAD’s leaders and the managerial elite of the international development community.
Scholars like Jeffrey Herbst, who have helped to define and spearhead the development community’s dramatic shift in emphasis towards demanding particular governance and accountability practices in recipient African states, have cautiously welcomed NEPAD. They see it as evidence of the ascension of a “forward-thinking” coterie of African leaders such as Mbeki and Obasanjo who are willing to back a reformist agenda built on the wish-lists compiled by prudentially minded political scientists. Contrariwise, scholars who cling to some version of dependency theory, like Patrick Bond, have predictably dismissed NEPAD’s commitment to co-operation with the G8 nations, major development institutions and non-governmental organisations as the latest repackaging of compradorial allegiance to neo-colonial domination.
However, in relation to the work of scholars who have been trying to re-theorise the African state in both its colonial and post-colonial formations—scholars such as Crawford Young, Alex de Waal, Mahmood Mamdani, Achille Mbembe or Patrick Chabal—NEPAD and the African Union can offer a meaningful springboard to a more pointed and potentially generative conversation about the past and the future. Seen from the perspective of the historically informed investigation of the modern African state with which these thinkers begin, NEPAD’s gestures towards accountability, transparency and good governance look less significant than might at first appear. But their criticism of these gestures is then founded on something more complex than the usual carping about neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism.
The African State
In my view, the most notable absence within NEPAD and the African Union’s rapidly proliferating structure of pseudo-ministries and paper initiatives is any comprehensive or analytically sharp sense of the nature of the African state and state–society relations, or of the sources of their failures to date. In this claim, I side rather decisively with one perspective in the long-term divide between those who understand the accelerating crisis in African societies as internally driven and those who see it as externally caused. None of Africa’s contemporary problems is without profound relation to global modernity and international institutions, but NEPAD’s agenda cannot be meaningfully engaged or considered without centrally locating its concerns within the architecture and history of African states and their local and regional elites.
The consensus among analysts of the contemporary African state is that it is frequently a Potemkin village, a performative sham. Whether this makes these states “weak” or “failed” or even in a global sense abnormal or aberrant is a matter on which different observers disagree. Equally, the roots or genesis of the contemporary state are much debated. Some scholars see a sharp disjunction between a “strong” colonial state capable of mobilising centralised power to instrumental ends, and a post-colonial state that is a façade for much more attenuated, networked forms of local social power that are highly exposed to penetration by global institutions ranging from large-scale criminal operations to multinational capital. Others see a continuous history of weakness or incapacity between colonial and post-colonial states in Africa.
I tend to side with those seeing strong structural and conceptual connections between colonial African states and societies and contemporary circumstances, and I understand the state in both eras to be weak or “hollow” in various ways. Unlike Mahmood Mamdani, who sees this continuity as the product of an exogenous and instrumental project of domination, as a deliberate consequence of colonial power, I would argue that it is the product of history “from below”, of local forms of social power and political imagination negotiating relations with colonial authorities and learning to perform particular repertoires of statecraft and national order. This puts me closer to the views of Achille Mbembe or the critiques of “neo-patrimonialism” offered by Patrick Chabal, as well as a range of recent revisionist accounts of colonial African statecraft.
This historical perspective on African states and their causal role in the general crisis of African societies in the early twenty-first century matters because it is what NEPAD lacks. NEPAD’s founding document is revealing both for what it does and does not say on these questions.
First, the document offers a nearly rote characterisation of colonialism as underdevelopment that is virtually a direct citation of the work of Walter Rodney and similar dependency theorists (small wonder, given Mbeki’s frequent and admiring citations of Rodney’s influential book).3 The document thus reproduces the standard trope that Africa was rich in resources and that these resources were instrumentally and optimally plundered for the benefit of the West. Among its visions of the developmental future, NEPAD offers the equally standard aspiration of reversing this historical pattern and putting African resources to work within African economies, of achieving sovereignty and ownership over Africa’s wealth.
Having offered a view drawn from core works of nationalist and radical Africanist political economy on the sources and nature of colonialism, the NEPAD founding manifesto then tellingly departs from this analytic voice in its account of post-colonial crisis in Africa. While placing considerable emphasis, in time-honoured fashion, on the destructive economic and social legacy of colonialism, the document also alludes to “weak states” inherited at independence and adds the twist that newly independent African states also lacked “capitalist classes”—a weakness that some earlier versions of nationalist boilerplate often welcomed or even actively sought to produce.
More strikingly, the NEPAD manifesto speaks of the aggravation of post-colonial weakness by “poor leadership, corruption and bad governance”, but here the document offers virtually nothing by way of causal explanation for this turn of events. It speaks at length of a “new political will” among African leaders, reinforced by popular demands for democracy and by institutions of civil society in Africa, a new will making it possible to overcome the structural difficulties inherited by post-colonial African nations and the problem of “poor leadership” since 1960. The rhetoric of this “new will” remains in many cases strikingly consistent with the vision of African nationalism as it was originally articulated in the 1940s and 1950s, defining the success of a developmental project in Africa not in terms of the production of wealth or political freedoms as objectives in and of themselves, but in terms of the assertion of ownership or sovereignty over resources and capacities.
I am not the only one to note the sometimes odd stitching together of disparate ideological gestures and eras in the NEPAD manifesto, its combination of conventional rhetorics from dependency theory and African nationalism with nods to neo-liberalism and contemporary development orthodoxy. Nor would I be the only person to attribute much of the pattern of this suturing to Thabo Mbeki, and through him, to divisions and contradictions within South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC).4
Whatever their genesis, these contradictions leave NEPAD far from where it has to be in order to be a contributor to genuinely transformative reforms in contemporary African societies. NEPAD, like some of its critics on the left, pines for a strong African state, and as part of that vision of strength, for a state–society relation in which both elements are harmoniously mobilised to the same ends, and in which hollow, sham institutions of the state are authentically invested with real governmentality and power.
This vision is precisely one of NEPAD’s biggest weaknesses, an indication of the extent to which NEPAD is conserving some of the most problematic formulations of African nationalism and refusing to recognise that African nationalism is itself a major historical contributor to the evolution of “bad leadership” after 1960. The nature and sources of a “new political will” go uninvestigated—largely because this will is more declared by fiat than understood as actual practice—and liberal democracy is essentially taken as a means to a developmental end rather than an end in itself.
Much has been made of the extent to which NEPAD and the African Union embrace the conditional possibility of intruding on the sovereignty of member states deemed to be in violation of NEPAD’s fundamental commitments, causing some to wonder whether this is the beginning of South Africa and Nigeria’s asserting themselves in new ways as regional powers. But the timidity of Mbeki’s approach to the crisis in Zimbabwe shows there is no need for anxiety on this score as NEPAD’s leaders are as bound by the fetish-object of sovereignty as their predecessors in the Organisation of African Unity ever were. NEPAD does not rethink the nation, it does not rethink the state–society relation, it does not rethink what defines or constitutes the achievement of freedom. Most crucially, it does not ask questions about how Africa’s ruling elites fell into “bad leadership”, why they have allegedly found the “new political will” to renounce such leadership at this historical juncture, or what the conditionalities governing this new conviction might be.
Renunciation by Elites
Patrick Bond notes correctly that Mbeki in particular seems unwilling analytically to consider the collective or class identity of the governing elites of contemporary African states, and what their relations to other elites or social constituencies, both in their own countries and in the larger global economy, might be. Bond reads the contradictions in NEPAD and the unwillingness to think about elites self-critically as mere noise covering an actively compradorial project. I tend to see those same contradictions as a genuine product both of Mbeki’s own intellectual and political journey to power and of the complex political and intellectual history of the ANC as a whole. However, the larger historical question I want to pursue is whether modern elites in any society which control the machinery of nation-states have ever initiated or willingly participated in systemic reforms that call their own hegemony into question, and if so, whether those conditions potentially exist in Africa through the auspices of NEPAD.
The first important complication of this question is whether African elites which control or speak on behalf of states are in fact the real holders of meaningful political power, and therefore whether their willingness or lack of willingness to participate in self-transformation is relevant in the first place. Clearly, in some African territories like Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo, focusing on elites speaking from within the machinery of the government is completely irrelevant, since a national government either does not exist or exerts no real control over its territory. The question of what inspires insurgents to lay down arms and participate in non-violent forms of political process is obviously a very different one from what inspires bureaucratic elites to seek a new role or govern in new ways.
NEPAD’s interest in correcting “bad leadership” through “new political will” is applicable only to that subset of African countries in which the state can plausibly be regarded as at least a potentially meaningful source of social power, a potent habitus for elites. Even in this instance, what Chabal calls “neo-patrimonialism” still raises profound questions about whether narrowly bureaucratic elites are the actual source of social power. The question, then, of whether modern elites have ever initiated reforms that disperse or productively transform their own dysfunctional idioms of political power has, in the case of many African societies, to be extended to consider not only individuals who actually hold positions within the state, but also networks of elites whose power is interwoven with state and pseudo-state authority, yet which do not directly speak for or within the state—the kinds of networks which are classically examined and invoked in studies of corruption in contemporary Africa.
In this broader sense, are there elites which have been prepared to embrace and even encourage the diminution of their social power, and under what conditions have they been willing to do so? I would say yes, and modern African history provides two important cases to consider. The first is that of British and French officials in late colonial governments (from approximately 1940 to 1965), and the second is that of the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Late colonialism in Africa as a historical moment has received increasingly intense scrutiny from scholars in the past decade. In general, this work has tended to view late colonial regimes and early post-colonial states as relatively continuous with one another, while also distinguishing the developmental or negotiated character of late colonial rule from an earlier era of more bluntly extractive, coercive and violent imperial power. For some, this alleged continuity works to critique post-colonial development as being rooted in colonial structures of power, while others see this connection as eroding common critiques of colonialism as purely exterior to and dominating of African society. For a small minority of historians, most notably Niall Ferguson, the developmentalist character of late colonial regimes in Africa and elsewhere provides an opening for the sweeping rehabilitation of colonialism as a progressive enterprise.5
While not sharing most of Ferguson’s views, I do believe there are ample grounds for thinking carefully about what David Scott calls the “fractured liberalism” of colonial regimes6 and the effects a kind of seepage of liberal constructions of the political self had on colonial authorities and subjects over time. In my view, this slow corrosion of imperial power was already visible as early as the 1922 publication of Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, the classic formulation of the philosophy and practice of “indirect rule”. Mahmood Mamdani regards indirect rule as systematised in Lugard as a seamlessly instrumental design for optimising colonial domination,7 whereas I see it as a hastily improvised attempt to manage a metastasising contradiction within the heart of the imperial project in Africa.
Lugard, like other British imperial thinkers, repeatedly acknowledges the potentially rights-bearing personhood of African subjects, only to abjure or erase that acknowledgement. This is a familiar dance in the general history of Enlightenment conceptions of human subjectivity and nineteenth-century liberalism in particular. Every attempt to reserve a category of persons as potentially but not presently rights-bearing, potentially but not presently a citizen, ultimately undercut itself, all the way from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, through John Stuart Mill, down to Lugard and ultimately to late colonial authorities in Africa and other parts of the world as well. (Not to mention once again at this very moment in the United States’ occupation of Iraq.)
In this view, decolonising processes under way in the 1940s and 1950s, while heavily laden with fantasies of managerial control among metropolitan and local colonial authorities, were essentially paced by the inability of those authorities to contain the unfolding of political liberalisation within their domains. Despite the invocation by colonial advocates of an extra-historical never-never land in which imperial subjects might some day, hypothetically, be able to achieve European modernity, African subjects very rapidly claimed the substance of rights-bearing personhood from the outset of modern colonialism, and in the case of coastal west Africa, well before that. Moreover, as indirect rule drew colonial authorities into various (often distorted) instantiations of “the customary”, they were frequently compelled to recognise the legibility of historical forms of political power and personhood within Africa to the conceptual frameworks of Enlightenment liberalism, even though such a recognition was deeply corrosive of their own continuing right to rule.
Even when late colonial authorities struck against African subjects with startling brutality, as in the British suppression of the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya, or pursued what now seem like almost comical oscillations between political repression and political liberalisation, as in the regular cycles of imprisonment and negotiation that marked the lives of most nationalist leaders in French and British Africa in the 1950s, the differences between these actions and those undertaken in the early history of modern imperial rule in Africa are striking. Shooting into an angry crowd in 1910 or 1923 was simply shooting into a crowd, an act of open brutality. But in fighting the Mau Mau, the British envisioned a comprehensive, frequently delusional, strategy for the psychological and political reconstruction of the subjectivity of their opponents.
Thus, in contrast to Mamdani and many other thinkers, I would argue that late colonial regimes were engaged, for complex reasons, in the degradation rather than preservation of their own social and political power, and that for the most part colonial authorities were direct and occasionally even enthusiastic participants in this process. They were so because they were unable to prevent the penetration of liberal constructions of political personhood into the daily business of their authority over African subjects. They were constrained by implicit commitments and imagined frameworks that could not be ignored, despite decades of sustained effort to build structural and conceptual firewalls that would prevent the spread of these commitments and frameworks to the colonial enterprise. The agency of Africans, both nationalists and otherwise, played a key, perhaps the key role in this process, but in the end, British and French colonial authorities participated actively in their own marginalisation.
The Transition from Apartheid
The end of the apartheid state in South Africa offers some parallels. Scholars will clearly be debating the causes of the fall of apartheid for many decades to come, and no account which fails to consider a wide array of contributing factors will ever be credible. The conventional “armed struggle” waged by ANC forces may not have been particularly important, but the extent to which both urban townships and rural areas were made uncontrollable was obviously of major significance in apartheid’s demise. External sanctions and pressures also played a multifaceted role. But it is also important to examine the internal consciousness and outlook of the white political leadership and state bureaucracy on the one hand, and those of the wider white population as a whole on the other.
Many accounts of the transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy in South Africa describe the self-interested character of the calculus employed by the white political leadership and population: they reasoned it was important to preserve some measure of their economic and political power by acceding to majority rule under the best possible circumstances. Such accounts recall the much older and more established fissure in the historiography of the slave trade between those who argue for the authentically “altruistic” character of abolition and those who see it as the self-interested outcome of a new capitalist elite’s seeking to replace slave-based political economies with ones based on “free labour”.
I can only say that I (and many others) think these are falsely antagonistic analyses. There is indeed reason to regard the end of apartheid (and abolition) as the product of calculated self-interest, but no reason why this conclusion should cause us to ignore the character and implication of the ideas and practices which this calculus has sought to advance or preserve, the degree to which the impulse to reduce transformatively one’s own social power is driven by a compulsive sense of obligation and constraint. A reductionist sense of self-interest has a hard time explaining what I take to be a crucial cultural fact of the South African transition, namely, the significant impact on whites of the worldwide sports boycott and similar gestures of global censure. Alongside the unvarnished brutality of the apartheid state is the striking fact that its white beneficiaries felt a kind of vulnerability and exposure to global condemnation; they were still capable of feeling shame. Despite their scorn for the discourse of human rights, apartheid’s rulers were compelled in some sense to retain a vulnerability to it; despite the absurdly propagandistic character of their supposed defence of “Christian Western civilisation”, to claim to act in its name nevertheless created a corrosion at the heart of their enterprise.
It is by no means inevitable that elites always optimally calculate the necessities of power, knowing precisely when and how they must pursue a change in their circumstances in order to retain some measure of what was formerly theirs. Elites in modern history have committed, and probably will continue to commit, political and social suicide. Nowhere has this been more the case than post-colonial Africa. While there may be strong continuities between those who wielded neo-patrimonial power behind the scenes in 1965 and those who wield it today, there are also innumerable examples of African state actors deterministically marching towards their own extinction or imprisonment. So the question is, why did the self-interested calculus of late colonial officials or apartheid rulers include a “fractured liberalism” that laid them open to both local and global demands for an end to their regimes, and why is this not the case for many post-colonial African elites?
This is what NEPAD does not ask, and small wonder, because all of the potential answers are uncomfortable for its builders. It is true that even the most autocratic post-colonial states in Africa have made and still make gestural accommodations to liberal conceptions of citizenship and rights, whether in the wild misnomer of country names like “The Democratic Republic of Congo”, or in sham rhetorical invocations of the supposed will of their people. It is also true that there are post-colonial African leaders and governments which have been authentically committed in some fashion to a liberal conception of personhood, and authentically open to shame in the face of their failure to realise that conception.
But there is a huge difference between Sani Abacha and F. W. de Klerk, between the obscenity of the post-colonial African state in its most hollow, arbitrary and attenuated moments and the vulnerable brutality of apartheid or late colonialism. There is no sense in which Sani Abacha, Robert Mugabe, Daniel arap Moi, or Obiang Mbasango were or are constrained by a felt responsibility to liberalism. Whatever calculus they applied or still apply to the maintenance of power, it does not include any accommodation for rights or citizenship. It was possible to challenge the apartheid state through mass protest partly because despite its use of violence, it was sensitive to global condemnation; mass protests against the likes of Abacha, Mbasango, Bokassa or Amin simply end in the grave or the prison cell, without much concern among governing authorities for the consequences.
The difference between regimes constrained by some ghostly, fractured liberalism and those that are not is not civilisational or racial; it is not the difference between the West and the Rest. Within the framework of the post-colonial moment, it is striking to compare Jawaharlal Nehru’s authentic, deep commitment to liberal democratic practice with Kwame Nkrumah’s relative lack of interest in the same once he achieved power. There is a huge difference between those nationalist autocrats in Africa whose grip on power was unimpeded by allegiance to anything outside the reproduction of their own authority, and a leader like Julius Nyerere, who eventually ceded power with an acknowledgement (albeit partial and conditional) of his own failures.
The Wrong Answer
Similarly, it is hard not to contrast Mbeki’s conception of NEPAD with Nelson Mandela’s programmatic acceptance of limitations on his authority as president, and more signally with the careful constitutionalism that marked the transition to the new South African state. Mbeki’s NEPAD not only fails to explore why there was “bad leadership” in the past, or what might be the conditions of “new political will” in the present, but by privileging the idea of a unified mobilisation of both state and society behind NEPAD’s agenda, the entire project signally misdirects its energies towards the tired and failed nationalist aspiration to have the state and civil society be as one. This vision, more than anything else, is the structural source of “bad leadership” in the post-colonial era.
In this, Mbeki and the other designers of NEPAD share a misconception with some of their strongest critics. Bond, for example, essentially inverts NEPAD’s privileging of elite leadership for a privileging of new social movements, whose character and ideology he takes to be essentially unitary, and urges state actors to subordinate themselves to social movements in a unified drive to achieve radical sovereignty within the global political economy. Mamdani calls for the elimination of any trace of the “customary”, which he takes to be the quintessential structural artefact of colonialism’s “decentralised despotism”, in favour of a strong unitary state that corresponds on a one-to-one basis with a unified civil society within the boundaries of a given nation-state.
The remedy for weak or failed states is not strong ones: it is states that are constrained by both structural and customary obligations to the liberty of citizens. NEPAD dreams of mobilising all of the continent behind an “African Renaissance”, but such a renaissance, if it is to bloom, will come not from unity but pluralism and multiplicity. It will come not because the state leads (or follows) society but because it binds itself in chains of law and practice, creates regimes of rights and laws and privacies that it guarantees but that are not perpetually dependent upon it. The renaissance will come not from the achievement of a sovereign authority over Africa, but in the realisation that attaining or extending sovereignty should no longer be the central objective of politics, a recognition that the achievement of sovereignty is no guarantee of liberty, and that economic development is nothing if it is not a means to the end of freedom. Gerrit Olivier articulates well this criticism of NEPAD and Mbeki’s “renaissance” when he observes general doubt about “the apparently blind faith of [NEPAD’s] architects in the mechanisms of central planning, a top-down bureaucratic process and what looks like socio-political engineering”.8
This is why the issue of elites conceding the necessity of limitations on their own power becomes so urgent, and why late colonial and apartheid transitions pose so many important questions. African nationalism at its heart never articulated or accepted a constrained conception of political power or national personhood; consequently, it readily fell to “bad leadership” and corruption, and remained endlessly exposed to the deeper historical logics of neo-patrimonial social power.
However, African civil societies, broadly conceptualised, have frequently (though not invariably) pursued from the advent of modernity onward just such constraints, continuously evading, eliding or eroding the intrusions of state authority, both colonial and post-colonial. What Mamdani takes to be the continuous reproduction of colonial domination—the persistence of customary law, chiefship, and the concept of rural “tradition”—I would regard as an actively sustained and often generative social practice that emanates quintessentially from below, from deliberate investments of effort and consciousness within everyday life. The many domains of African civil society are neither waiting for the state finally to live up to its responsibilities and lead strongly and well, nor calling upon the state to accept the heroic leadership of already mobilised revolutionary masses. The potential citizens of African nations are, in many ways, simply wanting to be left alone and to go about their diverse affairs, which is a reasonable enough lay understanding of liberalism’s possibilities.
That which makes elites capable of accepting constraints, of allowing power not merely to seep slowly and uncontrollably to civil society but deliberatively and structurally to flow to it, is ultimately the ethical character of those elites. Ethics do not grow in a vacuum, and it is possible to offer a rich intellectual history that explains Mandela or Nyerere and their many distinctions from Hastings Banda or Robert Mugabe in ways that go beyond the arbitrarily or merely personal. But the difference in the end is still an ethical one—that certain elites, or even factions within an elite, see and accept limits on their social power at some crucial juncture in their history. This is what Afro-pessimism often brings to the table that Africanists ignore at their peril: the capacity for outrage at the status of African societies within modernity, and at the ethical failures of African leaders. It is also what NEPAD lacks in its sheepish, incurious admission of “bad leadership” in the past.
A Shameful Silence
This is why NEPAD’s failure to date is summed up more than anything else by Mbeki’s intolerable cowardice in the face of the collapse of Zimbabwe under the autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe and his associates. It is not merely that Mbeki is hypocritical, or even, as some would have it, failing to think pragmatically about the consequences of Zimbabwe’s collapse for South Africa’s own economy. It is that the unwillingness to speak clearly and unambiguously about the unacceptability of the Zimbabwe crisis exemplifies the extent to which Mbeki and other NEPAD leaders do not understand that “bad leadership” cannot give way to “new political will” unless they embrace an ethical conception of their own social role, root and branch.
Whether speaking softly and negotiating privately with Mugabe or speaking stridently and in public about his failings is the right way to effect change in Zimbabwe is utterly beside the point. The need to speak about Zimbabwe is not for Zimbabwe itself: it is about NEPAD, it is about the possibility of an “African Renaissance”, it is about Mbeki and others not understanding what the foundational conditions for the liberation of African societies from their sufferings, for the achievement of development, might truly be. The need to speak about Zimbabwe is not about Zimbabwe: it is about Africa, what it has been, still is, and might yet become.
2. Frederick Cooper, Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 180.
3. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974).
4. See, for example, Patrick Bond, “Thabo Mbeki and NEPAD: Breaking or Shining the Chains of Global Apartheid?”, in Thabo Mbeki’s World, ed. Sean Jacobs and Richard Calland (London: Zed Books, 2002).
5. Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2003).
6. David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Post-Coloniality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
7. Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
8. Gerrit Olivier, “Is Thabo Mbeki Africa’s Saviour?”, International Affairs 79, no. 4 (2003), p. 828.