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We need true politics that serves the people – not power games

Apr 03, 2011 Leadership, Sunday Nation

I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion at Strathmore Business School last week. Kenya was hosting an important visitor: Jose Maria Aznar, prime minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004.

Mr Aznar is a highly regarded global leader for a good reason: he is a conviction politician who calls it as he sees it, and is not afraid to chart an unpopular course. In 1996, for example, he froze the wages of all civil servants in his country, and faced down union-led protest marches by tens of thousands of his countrymen.

The following year, he enacted a strict austerity budget to lower Spain’s fiscal deficit, again in the face of much hue and cry. Eventually, though, people generally respect a conviction leader; despite all the initially unpopular measures he initiated, Mr Aznar was re-elected in 2000 with an outright majority.

He also went down in history a few years later as a vocal backer of the invasion of Iraq. On that matter I disagreed with his stance; but I do respect the fact that his decisions were always based on clearly articulated principle rather than visceral reaction. In 2004 he stepped down, honouring a pledge not to seek a third term.

What struck me during Mr Aznar’s Nairobi address were his rather refreshing thoughts regarding Africa. We are very used to European politicians coming here and bleating the same old messages about aid relationships and creating markets for their oligarchies to dump goods into. Mr Aznar struck a more progressive tone.

Consider this: he pointed out that Spain itself was not a rich country just 50 years ago, and suffered from the same endemic diseases like malaria that today haunt Africa. However, Spain entered the economic big leagues in just another generation. This has been replicated throughout most of Asia. If certain fundamentals are addressed, Mr Aznar sees Africa as the world’s second economic engine in the coming decades.

Europe generally has a blind spot about Africa, considering its woes to be cultural in nature. Mr Aznar offered some more considered thoughts: that contrary to the prejudices of some of his compatriots, “Africa’s ills are not insurmountable. Africans are not doomed to misery for cultural, historical, religious, or least of all, for ethnic reasons.”

He pointed out two of Africa’s entrenched ills: leaders who engage in mere power fights, not true politics which is the servant of society and economy; and the maintenance of rigged, closed markets that benefit only elite business monopolists. The hopeful thing is that we can fix both those illnesses. The problem of African poverty is neither exogenous nor insurmountable: a combination of leadership, institutions and values can crack it.

Here was a telling final message: “African labour is going to go to Europe. We can decide if we prefer it to go embodied in export products or as massive migration. The latter will happen if Africa doesn’t resolutely take the road to development and if youth unemployment continues to soar. I definitely prefer the first route. I am also sure most Africans also prefer it.”

We certainly do. It is products and services we wish to export, not cheap young bodies. Now where is the Kenyan politician able to entertain those thoughts and articulate them? Distressingly, last I heard some forty of them were preparing to join the “Ocampo 6” in the Hague as cheerleaders, as though they will be attending a raucous football match.

That kind of mob buffoonery is not what Africa needs. We have to instal leaders who understand global economics and who strategise for their people, not their elite peers. For as long as we tolerate these power games, we are going to remain far away from the ‘true politics’ that we really need.

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