African Poverty Crises

African Poverty Crises


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 my only thoughts have been that God did not destine poverty, wars and suffering for Africans



Prime Minister Tony Blair 

and the African Poverty Crises

By Uche Nworah


Africans should not blame Mr Tony Blair, the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Britain, for attempting to redress through the Commission for Africa report, decades of imbalances and injustices visited on Africans by both African rulers and their western collaborators. It is this callous and wicked conspiracy that has brought the beautiful and virgin continent on its knees, largely impoverishing its people and turned them into beggars, cry babies and laughing stocks of the global community.

Sickening image of a child searching for food in the anus of a cow. (Photo source: Consumption Junction)

As an African living in the United Kingdom, I have lost count of the number of times, my tummy has ached, and my senses insulted by the shocking images of dying children, dilapidated infrastructures, population mass and war-torn and savaged villages in rural Africa, largely peddled in the western media, on each of these occasions, my only thoughts have been that God did not destine poverty, wars and suffering for Africans, else Africa would not have been richly blessed with abundant natural and human resources, Africans by default, willingly and unwillingly are  Africa’s worst enemies.

It is our collective failure as a people, and the failure of successive African governments to get their acts together, that has led Tony Blair and the other world leaders, to try from the West to solve the largely evident problems in Africa. On this note, praise should go to Mr Blair and his Commission for Africa team for the vision, and also for showing a willingness to back this vision with a political will.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of the Commission for Africa (Photo source: commission for Africa)

The good thing about the report is that it talks about a partnership between Africa and the West, this new approach to dealing with Africa is most welcome, it not only shows that Africa as a continent has grown up, it also challenges Africa to rise up and accept its responsibilities as a grown up, the report entrusts Africa’s destiny into Africa’s hands.

Further evidence of this is seen in the large representation of Africans in the 17- man commission, such as Nigeria’s Fola Adeola (founder of Guaranty Trust Bank PLC & Chairman of Fate Foundation), Meles Zenawi (Ethiopian Prime Minister) Ghana’s Dr. K.Y Amoako (Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission of Africa), Uganda’s Dr. William S. Kalema, South Africa’s Trevor Manuel, and Mrs. Linah Mohohlo (Governor of the Bank of Botswana) to name a few of them.  The members of the Commission reportedly consulted widely through out Africa and with the African Diaspora before making its recommendations.

The proposals, as enounced in the report are worthy, for example the call for western leaders to increase aid, cancel debts completely and repatriate funds stolen by corrupt leaders which are currently stashed away in numbered Western bank accounts. The report also calls on African leaders to improve governance and fight corruption, provide free primary education, improve health care, commit aid money to infrastructural development and so on.

However, in order not to let these proposals become another one of those endless communiqués normally issued at the end of every conference or seminar on Africa’s problems, it is vital that both the Prime Minister and the Commission for Africa go a step further.

Especially now that the Prime Minister has been re-elected in the May 5th 2005 elections for a record third time, he should let his actions speak louder than the words contained in the 461-page report. The common man on the streets of Africa desirous of real change would like to see Mr Blair convince his fellow Western leaders of the seriousness of the African situation, he can only do this if he sets the ball rolling by acting decisively the same way he did when he led the way in the aftermath of the Tsunami disaster, through his governments’ record £75M contribution. This time, Africans expect a British government announcement of debt cancellations for poor African nations; such announcements may be the tonic the other creditor nations need to begin to take action themselves towards that direction.

It has been widely reported and acknowledged that for Africa to make the fresh start desired by all, the continent needs to offload its huge and mounting debt burden, which it can no longer sustain, some of these debts were incurred by corrupt regimes who ended up recycling the funds back into their private bank accounts scattered all over the western countries, while some of these corrupt officials have since left government, the citizens of these African countries continue to suffer from the repayments, without any real and tangible differences in the social systems and infrastructures, the reasons advanced by the corrupt government officials in order to secure the loans in the first place. 

Water is still a scarce resource in major parts of Africa as this picture shows a child washing himself with animal urine

Nigeria for instance, despite the reported oil windfall from the Iraq war, has not been able to effect any real changes in the lives of its citizens, this is largely due to its huge debt burden which currently stands at $33bn, in the last two years alone Nigeria has paid over £3.5B in debt servicing, while its debt stock over the same period has risen by £3.9B without any new borrowing, largely due to mounting interest rates on the debts.  

Interestingly, Britain is Nigeria’s largest creditor with 21% of Nigeria’s debts. So, Mr Blair should realise that the buck actually stops with him and his government, if they act by canceling the debts, the other creditors may follow suit. Any thing short of this may be likened to paying lip service to Africa’s problems or just plain and cheap political talk, which in this instance should not be the case as the Prime Minister’s Labour Party has been recently returned to power, and so there is not any immediate political risks to the Prime Minister and his party for pursuing such a radical but progressive and humanitarian course of action. 

Savings made through non-payments of the debts, as a result of cancellations can now be invested massively in the development of infrastructures, which are needed in order to build and increase capacity, broaden opportunities for Africans locally, and stimulate real socio-economic growth in Africa.

Corruption and misappropriation of public funds have been advanced in some quarters as being the reasons while Western creditors may be opposed to a full cancellation of Africa’s debts. Such cynics readily cite examples of the numerous massive and colossal mismanagement of public funds constantly reported in the media. While this is sadly the case, it should also be pointed out that some of these African governments are finally beginning to show a strong will to tackle corruption. Worthy of note is the current efforts by the Obasanjo government in Nigeria, which has in recent months already started taking some actions aimed at seriously tackling corruption in Nigeria. 

The Inspector-General of the Nigeria Police (Tafa Balogun) has been removed from office and is currently facing trial on a 50 count charge of corruptly enriching himself to the tune of over 10 Billion Naira ($100M). Also the Minister of Education, Prof. Fabian Osuji and four others, Senators Ibrahim Abdulazeez, John Azuta Mbata, Emmanuel Okpede, Badamasi Maccido and a member of the House of Representatives, Dr. Garba Shehu Matazu, and the Senate President (Senator Adolphus Wabara) have all been implicated in a 50 Million Naira ($500,000) bribery scandal. 

The senate president has had to resign as a result and is currently being prosecuted at an Abuja High court by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), alongside the other accused senators and Minister. Also the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Mrs. Mobolaji Osomo has been sacked over the manner in which her ministry handled the sales of federal government houses in Lagos. The Nigerian government has also set up the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), headed by Nuhu Ribadu, to investigate and prosecute corrupt public officers, as well as other such related crimes and offences.

Apparently, these reforms are not impressing Nigeria’s creditors so much. At the recent public presentation of the Commission for Africa report, in Lagos Nigeria, Mr. Richard Gozney, The United Kingdom High Commissioner to Nigeria asserted that “economic reforms have made big difference at the centre. There has been transparency and accountability much more than we have a few years ago. But there is still a little way to go in the regions. So much needs to be done about profligacy”. 

The High commissioner’s comment is a kind of indictment of the Nigerian government, and also a challenge for them not to relent in their current efforts to rid Nigeria of political and institutional corruption, as the government has already demonstrated by their recent actions.

As a suggestion, I will argue that if the western creditors are serious about keeping faith with Africa but are still dissuaded by the corruption argument. They should firstly accept the idea of complete debt cancellation in principles, after which the Commission for Africa can then supervise the setting up of dedicated bank accounts in the West where African countries will continue to pay in the agreed repayment sums. The funds thus accumulated will then be used to fund specific projects in each individual country under the supervision of the Commission for Africa and other key stakeholders.

The projects that will receive priority attention should be the ones that will build capacity and yield maximum benefits to the common man in the streets of Africa.

This is not to absolve African leaders from the major tasks and responsibilities of regenerating Africa. African leaders should readily call to mind the African proverb which says that one should not depend so heavily on the kindness of his neighbour to tend his barns for him. This is because there may come a time when the neighbour may be indisposed or may choose to attend to his own affairs. 

So while the debt cancellation campaign continues, hopefully to an eventual positive conclusion, African leaders should renounce mediocrity and corruption as recommended in the report. They should know that this is the era of accountability and transparency in the running of governmental affairs. The current generation of Africans are enlightened and empowered, and are capable of asking them questions about their actions.

At the public presentation of the Commission for Africa Report in Lagos Nigeria, Richard Gozney, the United Kingdom High Commissioner to Nigeria also said that Nigeria, in asking for debt cancellation should first of all ‘answer the common question from the outside world of why oil is more than $50 per barrel and Nigeria still needs debt relief ’. He went on further to say that ‘We can see that, but it is not so evident to the outside world, particularly the creditor countries. You need to help us explain that’. 

On strategies for a way forward, the High Commissioner said that Nigeria has to “explain why your excellent reform programmes were put together by the finance minister, home grown Nigerian reform not made in Washington. With intensified surveillance you can convince the IMF why it is an adequate substitute to IMF reforms’. Mr. Gozney’s advice may also be applicable to the other heavily indebted African countries.

Africa’s dark era of military dictatorships are finally coming to an end, and with it the brutal repression and media censorships that characterised the era, and so Africans should rise up to the challenge of holding their governments accountable.

Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer prize winning photo of a vulture waiting for a child to die, so that it will eat it epitomizes  not only the hunger crises in Sudan but also in the whole of Africa. (Photo source: Pulitzer) 

Surprisingly, the Commission for Africa report has not yet been widely circulated and launched around Africa. Only Ethiopia and recently Nigeria are reported to have formally launched the reports, most regrettably in the city centers, and far away from the rural areas, where 80% of the population live in abject poverty, and where urgent help are most needed. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi was the first to launch the report in his country, probably because of his dual role as a member of the Commission and also as the Prime Minister of his country. There is therefore much to be done in this regard by the Commission, to reach out and sensitize the people and ensure that the main recommendations of the Commission are circulated not only to African governments, but also to Africans in the villages, communities and schools.

There should also be plans by the Prime Minister and the Commission to influence the process of giving legal muscles to some of the measures and proposals outlined in the report, both in Africa and the Western countries, necessary laws may need to be passed in order to give these proposals the legitimacy they urgently require, while also circumventing the mischievous acts of cynics and civil service technocracy and bureaucracy, the main likely impediments to the successful realisation of the proposals contained in the report.

Poor transport infrastructures have made Africans to travel under unsafe and inhuman conditions

The report may need to be translated into local languages to make it more meaningful to the people, that way the government and people of Africa, having found a willing ally and ‘angel of light’ in Prime Minister Tony Blair would now see the simple piece of paper which contains the abridged report of the Commission for Africa as a beacon of hope, and regard it as a contract of sorts, and a sure sign of a better and prosperous future for them and the future generation of Africans.  

Uche Nworah is a doctoral candidate at the University of Greenwich, London with research interests in country branding and diasporas. He also teaches business and marketing at Newvic, London.

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updated 29 September 2007




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