African Beggars Union Hall?
Alemayehu G Mariam
The new African Union (AU) headquarters was inaugurated last week. It was “China’s gift to Africa.” China picked the entire USD$200 million tab for the building, fixtures and furniture. The China State Construction Engineering Corporation constructed the building using nearly all Chinese workers. Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia, waxed poetic as he blessed the new building and consecrated the “continuing prosperous partnership” between Africa and China:
… This magnificent edifice is built on the ruins of the oldest maximum security prison in our country. People in Ethiopia used to call it Alem Bekagne, loosely translated it means I have given up on this world- this life. This building which will now house the headquarters of our continental organization is built on the ruins of a prison that represented desperation and hopelessness…
This magnificent new head quarters (sic) of our continental organization- the AU which has been at the center of the struggle for the African renaissance (sic) is a symbol of the rise of Africa. The face of this great hall is meant to convey this message of optimism, a message that is out of the decades of hopelessness and imprisonment a new era of hope is dawning, and that Africa is being unshackled and freed not only from the remnants of colonialism but also from want and violence. It is very interesting to note, that just as Africa is rising from the ruins of the desperation and Afro-pessimism this magnificent new head quarter (sic) of the AU is rising from the ruins of a prison of desperation and hopelessness.
… It is therefore very appropriate for China to decide to build this hall — the hall of the rise of Africa — this hall of African renaissance — (sic) and the adjoining office building for us. I am sure I speak for all of you when I say to the people and government of China thank you so very much. May our partnership continue and prosper.
The current AU chairperson, Equatorial Guinea’s three-decade plus dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema, praised the “generosity of the Chinese government”, and described the building as marking “a qualitative leap in the relations between China and Africa”. He raved about the building as “a reflection of the new Africa, and the future we want for Africa”.
Why didn’t the African countries chip in to build this “magnificent” symbol of an “Africa Rising” and an “African Renaissance”? Well, they do not have the money; they are poor. (Incidentally, a few months ago, the U.S. Government filed legal action against Teodorin Obiang, AU Chair Nguema’s son for racketeering (illegal business). While the Chinese were sweating it on the new AU hall, Teodorin had commissioned construction of a yacht [the second most expensive in the world] at the cost of 380 million dollars, [nearly twice as much as it cost to build the AU building] for his rest and relaxation.)
Africa Rising or Africa Panhandling?
Far from being a symbol of African hope, renaissance, optimism and glory, the new AU building reinforces the world’s indelible perception of Africa as the continent of poverty, famine, corruption and dictatorial extravagance. Reporter Richard Poplak insightfully observed the new AU building is the ultimate architectural symbol of Africa as a beggar continent and the moral decay of its dictators:
… The new African Union headquarters in dusty Addis Ababa is a structure in which form perfectly marries function – the building means nothing, and nothing will ever get done inside it…. The building doesn’t need to symbolize anything further than its existence, wherein it becomes a staggeringly articulate representation of Africa’s greatest skill: begging…. The first thing we notice is the tiled silver dome that acts as the building’s centerpiece. This reminds us of nothing so much as an overturned beggar’s bowl, left in the street after a solid day of mewling at the feet of passersby… Then there’s the tower. Stretching up 20 storeys… it resembles… a beggar’s outstretched hand… None of this could we have achieved by ourselves. Instead, in order to raise this fine structure – this symbol of continental unity – from the bare African earth, we used the one skill that unites us all. We stretched out our collective hands, batted our eyelashes, looked simultaneously cute and hungry. And we begged.
A Monument to a Do-Nothing African Union
The AU has 54 members. It was formed in 2002 as a successor to the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The AU’s declared aim is to “accelerate the political and socio-economic integration of the continent, promote and defend African common positions to achieve peace and security in Africa, and promote democratic institutions, good governance and human rights.”
In its decade of existence, the AU has little to show for itself. It sent peacekeeping troops to various hotspots in Africa including Burundi, Uganda, Somalia and Darfur, Sudan. The AU dumped its Darfur mission on the United Nations in 2008 unable to deal with that tragic situation. In 2007, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) was established to promote “stabilization of the country in furtherance of dialogue and reconciliation, facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance, and create conditions for long-term stabilization, reconstruction and development in Somalia.” Suffice it to say, “Mission stuck in the quagmire of Somali clan politics.” The AU also adopted various documents intended to remediate the problems of corruption, poor governance and economic development in the continent including the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (2003), the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (2007), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and its associated Declaration on Democracy, Political, Economic and Corporate Governance. Yet the theft of elections and billions of dollars in Africa has continuedover the past decade.
George Ayittey, the internationally acclaimed Ghanaian economist does not mince words in sizing up the AU:
Please, please, don’t ask about the African Union. It is the most useless organization we have on the continent. It can’t even define “democracy” and it is completely bereft of originality. It is imbued with “copy-cat” mentality. Europe has the European Union (EU), so we must have the African Union (AU). The AU forgot that to become a member of the European Union, a country must meet very strict requirements. But in the case of the African Union, there are no requirements. Any rogue and collapsed state can be a member. And when the African Union unveiled NEPAD (the New Economic Partnership for African Development), it boasted that NEPAD was an “African crafted program.” But as it turned out, NEPAD was modeled after the Marshall Aid Plan. When the Darfur crisis flared up, the AU was nowhere to be found. It was doing the watutsi [dance] in Addis Ababa. After much international condemnation, the AU finally managed to cobble together some troops to send to Darfur.
The “uselessness” of the AU is evident not only in its political impotence and economic ineptitude but also in its steadfast refusal to maintain observance of minimum standards of human rights in member countries. The AU has openly instructed member countries to “disregard” the International Criminal Court’s warrant of arrest issued against Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir who is sought for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. It did the same thing when an ICC arrest warrant was issued against Gadhafi. The AU yelped from the sidelines as Cote d’Ivoire descended into civil war following the 2010 presidential election. France, a former colonial power, had to come to the rescue. The AU was among the last to recognize the Libya’s National Transitional Council. No doubt, the AU was deeply distressed by the sudden demise of Gadhaffi, its longtime patron and sugar daddy. When Zenawi declared a 99.6 percent election victory in the May 2010 Ethiopian elections, the AU monitoring team led by former Botswana president Ketumile Masire praised him and declared: “It is recognised that 2010 Ethiopia’s legislative elections reflected the will of the people. Conditions existed for voters to freely express their will.”
The AU is managed by an inept and bungling commission which acts as the executive/administrative branch with empty suit commissioners lording over different areas of policy. According to news reports, “of the $256 million the commission was allocated in 2011, the AU used less than 40 percent. The commission has about 1,000 staff members, 328 posts have been vacant for the past eight years.” (One can surmise that the unused $154 million could have been a nice down payment for an all-African financed AU building. Talking about African countries not having “enough resources” for public projects, the International Monetary Fund recently reported that there was an unexplained USD$32 billion discrepancy in the Angolan government’s accounts from 2007 through 2010. Does “discrepancy” mean stolen? According to Global Financial Integrity, 11.7 billion was stolen from Ethiopia in the last decade. The same story is repeated in the Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria and many other African countries.)
Is Begging Africa’s Eternal Destiny?
For a long time, the Western world regarded Africa as the “Dark Continent”, not because of the complexion of the people but because little was known about Africa. Sadly, much of the world today regards Africa as the “Beggar Continent”. African dictators can wax eloquent about the “new Africa”, “Africa Rising” and the “African Renaissance”, but nobody is buying it. Everyone can see today that Africa is gasping to breath under the trampling boots of brutal dictators. Africa is not a continent in “renaissance”; it is a continent on a tightrope. Let the facts speak for themselves:
Over one-half the population of Africa lives on less than USD$1 a day. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where poverty has increased in the past 25 years. In 1960, Africa was a net exporter of food; today the continent imports one-third of its grain. Today, more than 40 percent of Africans do not even have the ability to obtain sufficient food on a day-today basis. Declining soil fertility, land degradation, and the AIDS pandemic in Africa have led to a 23 percent decrease in food production per capita in the last 25 years while population has increased dramatically. Among the 38 of the world’s heavily indebted poor countries, 32 are in Africa. The average life expectancy at birth for Sub-Saharan Africa is 52.5 years. Slums are home to 72% of urban Africans. Primary school enrollment in African countries is among the lowest in the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only two-thirds of children who start primary school reach the final grade.
Africa loses an estimated 20,000 skilled personnel a year to developed countries. A woman living in Sub-Saharan Africa has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy, compared to 1 in 3,700 for a woman in North America. On average, women in Sub-Saharan Africa have two more children than the rest of world. More than 40 percent of women in Africa do not have access to basic education. There are an estimated 5,500 AIDS deaths a day in Africa. Every year six million children die from malnutrition before their fifth birthday. More than 50 percent of Africans suffer from water-related diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhea. The prevalence of HIV for people ages 15-49 in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly 7 times the world’s prevalence.
Ethiopia remains at the very bottom of the world’s poorest nations. Under the “leadership” of the dictator Zenawi, for the past two decades Ethiopia has achieved the dubious honor of being the second poorest country in the world (after Mali) and the largest recipient of net official development assistance in Africa at USD$3.82 billion in 2009. The World Bank reported: “At US$380, Ethiopia’s per capita income is much lower than the Sub-Saharan African average of US$1,165 in FY 2010.”
According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, in just four decades, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. A recent report by the Legatum Institute presents some sobering and heartbreaking findings on the situation in Ethiopia today: Ethiopia has an “unemployment rate [that] is almost 21%, which is the sixth highest rate, globally.” The “capital per worker in Ethiopia is the fourth lowest worldwide.” The country has “virtually no investment in R&D.” The ability of Ethiopians “to start and run a business is highly limited… [with a] communication infrastructure [that] is weak with only five mobile phones for every 100 citizens”; and the availability of internet bandwidth and secure servers is negligible. Inequality is systemic and widespread and the country is among the bottom ten countries on the Index. The Ethiopian “education system is poor at all levels and its population is deeply dissatisfied.” There is “only one teacher for every 58 pupils at primary level, there is a massive shortage of educators, and Ethiopian workers are typically poorly educated.” Less than a “quarter of the population believe Ethiopian children have the opportunity to learn and grow every day, which is the lowest such rate in the Index.”
On “health outcomes, Ethiopia performs abysmally poor. Its infant mortality rate, 67 deaths per 1,000 live births, and its health-adjusted life expectancy of 50 years, places Ethiopia among the bottom 20 nations.” The population suffers from high mortality rates from “Tuberculosis infections and respiratory diseases. Access to hospital beds and sanitation facilities is very limited, placing the country 109th and 110th (very last) on these measures of health infrastructure.” The core problem of poor governance is reflected in the fact that “there appears to be little respect for the rule of law, and the country is notable for its poor regulatory environment for business, placing 101st in the Index on this variable.”
Africa Rising, African Uprising
African dictators want the world to believe there is an “Africa Renaissance” and “Africa is Rising.” They want to hoodwink the world into believing that Africa is “unshackled and freed”. They proclaim the “façade of the great Africa Union hall conveys a message of optimism out of the decades of hopelessness”. They insult our intelligence. We know Africa shall remain in the dark ages so long as dictators cling to power like ticks on an African milk cow. We know Africa is not rising while under the deadweight of dictatorship; but nothing can stop an African uprising. Despite the deceptive and beguiling words of pompous and imperious dictators, we know Africa is shackled and not free. How can Africa “rise” or undergo a “renaissance” when she is bound, gagged, chained, straightjacketed and hog-tied by gangs of ruthless dictators?
Behind the façade of the great AU hall stand a giggling gang of beggars with cupped palms, outstretched hands, forlorn eyes and shuffling legs looking simultaneously cute and hungry, and begging. The stark truth of the matter is that dictatorship has birthed a shiny tower of desperation and hopelessness on the very “ruins of a prison of desperation and hopelessness”. Teodoro Obiang said the AU building represents the “future we want for Africa”. Excuse me, but begging ain’t much of a future!
China’s economic investment in Africa is said to exceed USD$150 billion. Thousands of Chinese companies do business in all parts of the continent. We know that business is business, and money talks. But as to “China’s gift to Africa”, it is best to heed the old adage: Beware of those bearing gifts. On the other hand, it is bad from for a recipient of charity not to be grateful and amiable. So in the customary words of all palm-rubbing, belly scratching and kowtowing panhandlers, it is appropriate to say to the gift-givers:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/