August 27, 2005

Author decries Africa’s “vampire-like” leaders

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - British writer Martin Meredith
pulls no punches in his assessment of Africa: it is a bloody
mess, its leaders are to blame, and no amount of aid from the
West will solve that.

"Most African states have become hollowed out. They are no
longer instruments capable of serving the public good," he
concludes in his recently published 'The State of Africa: A
History of Fifty Years of Independence'.

"African governments and the vampire-like politicians who
run them are regarded by the populations they rule as yet
another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival."

Covering Africa's past five decades, the book seeks to
broadly answer one topical question: how has a continent with
so much potential become the poorest in the world?

Africa's plight was headline news with the July summit of
the Group of Eight rich nations who pledged to double aid to
the continent to $50 billion by 2010 and also agreed a package
of debt relief for some of its poorest countries.

Meredith, who has written several books on African
subjects, is skeptical.

"Debt relief and aid are not easy options but they are the
easiest of those available," he told Reuters in a telephone

"The G8 initiative is addressing the wrong end of the
problem. It cannot be resolved without Western assistance but
it leaves you with the problem of mismanagement of government.
This cannot be resolved just through Western aid," he said.

Many writers have shared his critique of the central role
of state leaders in Africa's demise, noting that political
power is often seen as a path to self-enrichment.

But other analysts see more signs of hope.

"Africa is turning the corner under the imperative of
greater accountability being driven from below," said John
Stremlau, head of the international relations department at
Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

"The abuse of power by the big man was also easier in the
first 40 years of independence than it is today because the
international accountability was lower ... In a post-9/11 world
there is a greater concern about having politically capable


Meredith, however, sees African leaders' support for
someone like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe -- whom Western
leaders and African critics accuse of human rights abuses -- as
a hangover from past that does not augur well for the future.

Admiration for the continent's people and places comes
through in his latest book and he does not ignore other
well-known factors stunting African development, though some
analysts have given them more prominence.

The continent suffered debilitating foreign intervention,
from a slave trade that uprooted millions to the cynical
diplomacy of the Cold War, and faces environmental stress and a
heavy reliance on commodities.

But he saves his wrath for Africa's leaders and the world
powers he says has propped them up.

The book portrays government incompetence, greed and
cruelty on a staggering scale.

When the West African nation of Ghana gained independence
from Britain in 1957 -- making it a beacon of hope as the first
African country to shake off colonial rule -- few could have
foreseen what lay ahead for it and much of the continent.

"No other African state was launched with so much promise
for the future," Meredith writes.

"Ghana embarked on independence as one of the richest
tropical countries in the world, with an efficient civil
service, an impartial judiciary and a prosperous middle class."

But its founding father Kwame Nkrumah pursued ruinous
policies while maintaining an iron grip on media which
ceaselessly praised him. He presided over soaring public debt
and widescale graft.

"The result of Nkrumah's handling of the economy was
calamitous," writes Meredith. "Ghana by 1965 had become
virtually bankrupt."

Nkrumah was ousted in a coup in 1966, making Ghana an
African trendsetter in more ways than one.

Ghana's leader was just one of many colorful but sinister
characters on the post-colonial stage.

There was Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African
Republic, who had 17 wives and a reputation for cannibalism,
Uganda's ruthless Idi Amin and Francisco Macias Nguema of
Equatorial Guinea, who closed all libraries and banned the word
intellectual -- only to be deposed and murdered by his equally
brutal nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

In the case of Equatorial Guinea -- a tiny central African
nation with large offshore deposits of crude oil -- Meredith
sees little hope of outside help.

"You have to look to Washington to see what its priorities
are. Equatorial Guinea is a corrupt and murderous dictatorship.
But what are George Bush's priorities? It is oil security, not
good government."