There’s an ancient Chinese prayer that says “May you live in interesting times”. From all indication steady rise of developing countries like China and India to the league of global players (the BBC reported last week that China had overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest economy after the US) to the current tide of political unrest sweeping along the Middle East which has so far consumed the autocratic, despotic governments of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in Tunisia and Egypt and is causing unrest in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain etc we seem to be really living in interesting times. Well, this is not really news to anyone no matter how apolitical or indifferent one is towards these kinds of issues for they have dominated the headlines all around the world. Therefore the aim of my write-up today is not to give an analysis of the current political turmoil in the Middle East – as more qualified and professional political analysts, columnists and bloggers have already done so, but just to draw one or two parallels with Sub Saharan Africa and their implications.
In these protests particularly in the case of Egypt there was an overwhelming sense of unity and cohesion amongst the protesters. Citizens from all walks of life – the middle-class and the relatively poor; the unemployed and the professionals; the young, the middle-aged and the elderly; single women and married women; Muslims, Coptic Christians and agnostics all came out to protest against an unpopular, silently loathed government; they persevered and protested for days until finally Mubarak conceded, gave up and resigned. This just shows what a united people can achieve. Now coming to Sub-Saharan Africa, the difference is clearly discerned as our leaders take us for granted, because we lack this fundamental sense of cohesion which can unite us and bring about positive change. By positive change I do not necessarily mean a revolution or an uprising but it could mean fiercely defending votes during elections to safeguard against rigging of elections; voting for the right candidates that can actually deliver on promises and make a difference in the lives of people not purely out of primordial sentiments and ethnicity; or even demanding for accountability and transparency from government which requires cohesion that transcends religious, ethnic and tribal lines. This is one of the main reasons why our leaders can act with impunity and get away with it because they are experts in the art of manipulating and whipping up ethno-religious sentiments or sentiments against imperialist influence when it suits them. The current impasse in Cote d’Ivoire is a testament to this where the current President Laurent Gbago has refused to hand over power to Alassane Ouattara widely believed to be the winner of last year’s presidential elections and this is having a crippling effect on the country’s economy as well as the potential of jeopardizing the country’s fragile stability. It is so funny how in the face of threat to their monopolization of power, these leaders decide to manipulate people’s sensibilities by hiding behind trying to assert their independence from external interests and control, like Mubarak did in the twilight of his regime and Gbago’s current antics of refusing to relinquish power in order to assert independence from foreign and external political and economic control.
From another angle, looking at these countries in the Middle East and the reasons behind the protests, the people involved are not living or wallowing in abject poverty and misery because as mentioned earlier, people from the middle class, professionals, medical doctors missed work for days as they protested in Tahrir square in the Egyptian case. Looking at the Human Development Index (HDI) for the year 2010 [ these are statistics published yearly by the UN to rank countries based on income levels, life expectancy and literacy levels according to their level of human development as either developed (very high development), transitional (high development), developing (medium development) and underdeveloped (low development) countries], with the exception of Yemen widely regarded as the poorest country in the Arab world, none of these Arab countries are in the “underdeveloped” category. Tunisia and Libya for example are in the “High Human Development” section – Libya ranks number 53 above Russia, Bulgaria and Tunisia is at number 81; Egypt at number 101 is in the “Medium Human Development” category, above South Africa which ranks 110 and in fact Bahrain is in the “Very High Development” category where North America, Western Europe and other developed regions of the world are!
Therefore these demands had less to do with provision of infrastructure – electricity, pipe-borne water, education and health care etc and more to do with the general sense of exclusion from the political system people felt was characterized by corruption, nepotism, cronyism revolving around the personalities of these leaders who had been in power for decades and their cronies. None of these Arab countries are in the Low Human Development section where the poorest countries of the world are, including much of Sub Saharan Africa but in contrast with more “open” or “democratic” systems of government. This hits home a point about the nature of democracy then, that for it to be effective it has to be something that is homegrown and comes out of a legitimate demand for greater participation by the mass generality of the people and not imposed on these societies. Because if it is birthed out of agitation for greater participation, knowing all the lives that have been lost and sacrifices that have been made then the people have a higher stake in it and would be very vigilant in protecting their mandates. My point being that if the outcome of these mass movement in the Arab world result in more open, representative and democratic political systems the people would always keep a vigilant eye and ensure greater accountability from the government knowing that it is a process they fought hard for. Compare this with the situation in Sub Saharan Africa where despite transition to “democracy” in many countries, HDI indicators like education and life expectancy have hardly improved, widespread poverty and insecurity still persist, elections are in most cases farcical or shams and even where they somehow manage to pass the barest minimum test of credibility, incumbents act with impunity and for selfish reasons, refuse to hand over power to the winners. You have to wonder if it is the traumatization of long-term bad leadership resulting in poverty and insecurity and other factors that are factors holding us back from and making us retreat into our ethno-religious and primordial loyalties and frontiers and allowing bad leadership to flourish unabated. And if these in-turn constitute obstacles to the unleashing of our collective consciousness which would make us not tolerate rigging of elections, which would make us unsympathetic to mediocre politicians who are more of ethnic champions than nationalists who can lead us to the progress we so much yearn for. Can we ever transcend beyond and overcome these obstacles and emerge as a united people? Ghana is so far proving to be an exception and we have our fingers crossed, hoping fervently that it continues to do so.
In conclusion, we the people are the only ones who can say enough-is-enough to bad leadership that has been bedeviling us. Our unity is our strength, if we cannot unite and address the most important issues which together form a common denominator beyond primordial divisions which we are well aware of how they complicate and add to our problems yet hastily retreat to, so our problems shall continue to persist and so shall we be enslaved by chains of our own creation. As other developing nations in other continents overcome their problems, stop using neo-colonialism and imperialism as to excuse bad leadership and zoom off into the horizon to become major global players in these “interesting times”, if care is not taken we shall remain but only spectators in the dark recesses of this interesting theater cheering and applauding them for a long time to come.
I found the video below through a friend of Facebook. This was before Mubarak resigned. I found it very interesting, you can almost feel the sense of unity against oppression by the Egyptians. I hope you enjoy it