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Until we clean up our act, the lectures will keep coming

Aug 16, 2009 Leadership, Sunday Nation

This has been a time of being lectured and hectored by foreigners, and not many of our leaders liked it. Prime Minister Raila Odinga took umbrage at the tone and message of the American ambassador at the opening of the AGOA conference last week. He said, in no uncertain terms, that Kenya does not need lectures on governance or accountability from outsiders; that only Kenyans can fix Kenya.

That is a sentiment shared by many in our intelligentsia and political classes. I must say I often find the condescending tones and patronising sentiments a little difficult to digest myself. It feels like ‘grown-ups’ who understand how to behave telling off little ‘children’ who do not. To be told how to govern your own country and how to conduct your affairs is a little strange, it has to be said: Britain would never imagine it can do this to France, for example; nor could the USA contemplate doing it to Canada. This kind of discourse does not happen between the ‘grown-ups’.

There is also the whiff of hypocrisy in the whole matter. Why do some countries imagine they automatically occupy the moral high ground? That they stand for what is right and just, and must teach it to the rest of us? America’s power games in supporting brutal dictators are well known in the recent past.

Britain, as our former colonial master, hardly has clean hands in Africa. If our leaders have perpetuated land grabbing of massive tracts, who did they learn it from? If they now live like lords in elite cocoons, who set the example for them to ape? And if Britain remains unwilling to act on the shenanigans of its large companies in emerging markets, then how can it hurl ultimatums? Investigations into the corrupt deals of its top companies are often ended in “the national interest.”

In any case, deadly arms cover the length and breadth of Africa. Who makes these guns, fighter planes, tanks, artillery, frigates and the rest? Not us – we are just children, remember, without the know-how for such advanced things. Whose companies and brokers supply arms to both sides of every conflict, and who turns a blind eye to these goings-on?

So I do agree with the PM, but only half-heartedly. It is an essential truth that only Africans can solve the problems of Africa. In fact, the force-fed initiatives emerging from the West have rarely borne fruit. We have had public officer ethics acts and procurement laws and anti-corruption authorities and coalition governments pushed down our throats. To what avail? We pay lip service to these things, we pretend to implement them, but we never seem to believe in them or own them.

But, but, but. Let us stop there. Only we can solve our problems, agreed. Where I part company with all those griping about sovereignty and self-determination and neo-colonialism is in this question: So when are we going to bloody well solve them? Yes, we resent interference in our affairs – so when are going to manage them to the highest level ourselves? We don’t like being lectured – so when are going to stop giving anyone the opportunity to lecture us?

At the moment, we are sitting ducks when it comes to condescension. We say our war on corruption is on; so when exactly are we going to jail the first big fish found guilty? We say our war on impunity is on; so when exactly will we find the mechanism with which to punish the perpetrators of ethnic violence and abuse of office? And how do we explain the fact that cabinet ministers of modest means seem to become super-rich after one term in office?

There is no point in telling our foreign ‘friends’ to go away if we are unwilling to solve our own problems. Those problems will not be solved by mere words at conferences or in strategic plans – they require courageous leadership and determined action. We must stop spouting words like transparency and accountability, and actually make those things happen. Now that will never be easy. It will involve losing political backing from many a power bloc; it will involve sending the worst offenders into incarceration; and it will involve giving real teeth to law-enforcement organs and making them independent of politicians.

Before we get carried away with feeling slighted and belittled, do we have the gumption and the will to do those very difficult things? If we do, then let’s start doing them. If not, then others will continue to impose them. I hope it is not lost on our leaders that the common public seems to have more faith in foreign institutions, foreign leaders, and foreign solutions than in our own. That is a damning thing.

Once we actually do the things we need to, the advice-givers will slink away. Until then, we must grin and bear it.

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