By Olukorede Yishau
I saw a video a few days ago. I had seen it before, but seeing it this time around got me thinking. The speaker in the clip is no other than Mo Ibrahim, the esteemed Sudanese-British billionaire businessman. Ibrahim’s concern in the video is the average age of African leaders. After doing his analysis, he asked: “Are they leading us to the grave?” A study, which I came across some days back, says the average age of the 15 oldest African leaders is 77, compared to 52 for leaders of the world’s ten most-developed economies. A commentator wondered: “Could this be one of the major reasons for Africa’s under-development?”
At the time he was unceremoniously kicked out of office, Robert Mugabe was 94. He led Zimbabwe for 37 years. The man who took over from him, Emmerson Mnangagwa, still qualifies as one of Africa’s oldest leader. Mnangagwa, also known as ‘Crocodile’, is about 77 years old. Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986, is over 75. The country’s constitution had limited the presidential age at 75, but to allow Museveni to continue in office beyond that age, the constitution was amended. The amendment engendered bitterness in the country, but Museveni was not moved. He got what he wanted and that was all that mattered.
The situation in Tunisia was scandalous. Its late President, Beji Caid Essebsi, was 92. He was a beneficiary of the revolution in the country which led to the Arab Uprising in the Middle East. If not for death, he would still be in power. His 86-year-old ‘younger brother’, Paul Biya, has been the lord of the manor in Cameroon since 1982. He has survived coup after coup. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 81, called the shot in Algeria. He had been in the position since 1999 and serving his fourth term before being forced to resign early this year. A man, who is two years younger, Arthur Peter Mutharika, is President in Malawi. Another age-mate of his, Alpha Conde, is in charge of Guinea. Sao Tome and Principe leader Evaristo Carvalho is 77. He became President in 2016 and will serve for five years if he doesn’t seek another term.
Namibia, Ghana, and Nigeria also have presidents who are over 70. Hage Geingob of Namibia is 75. Ghana’s Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo is 75. His Equatorial Guinea counterpart Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is 77 years old. Ridiculously, his son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, is Vice President. Our dear President, Muhammadu Buhari, is 75 years and has just been re-elected for a tenure of four years. Ivory Coast leader Alassane Ouattara is 76 Years.
I am not saying our old people should go and die. Far from it. We need their wisdom, but largely in the background. A few of them can be in the main arena, but what I abhor is a situation where they take over the arena — which is what is happening on the African political space. Under these leaders, Africa remains backwards. Its people are daily trooping to the developed world. Its professionals are ever ready to emigrate to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. Australia has also welcomed a number of them.
Corruption and illicit flow of fund are problems the continent is grappling with under these wise men. A joint report by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and Global Financial Integrity, a US research and advocacy group, says: “The illicit haemorrhage of resources from Africa is about four times Africa’s current external debt.” The report, Illicit Financial Flows and the Problem of Net Resource Transfers from Africa: 1980–2009, discovered that illicit outflows from Africa over 30 years ranged from $1.2 trillion to $1.4 trillion. I found something very instructive in the report. For many, Africa receives aids from the developed world. But what this report found out is that what the developed world gets from Africa indirectly far outweighs the aids the continent receives. This explains why Raymond Baker, the president of the Global Financial Integrity, argued that Africa has been a net creditor to the rest of the world for decades. He said: “The traditional thinking has always been that the West is pouring money into Africa through foreign aid and other private-sector flows, without receiving much in return.”
Africa is rich. Very rich. Resource-wise. If the resources are well-harnessed, Africa can finance much of its development without any help from China, the United States or the United Kingdom. We have gold, diamond, cocoa, crude oil and many more. But, what do we do with them? In most cases, we are not mining them rightly, and even the ones that are mined, the cash is largely pocketed. In Nigeria, oil cash is stolen brazenly. Politicians jostle to become oil minister in Nigeria. Not because of their love for the country, but all in a bid to line their pockets.
Ibrahim’s clip also makes me wonder if the present crop of leaders in Africa can take us on the China route.
Last April, I was in Shenzhen, one of China’s top four cities. Until the early 80s, the city was on its knees. Like the bulk of China, poverty was a friend to many of its inhabitants. All it took to change this city’s fortune — and by extension, China’s fortune — was a right decision by a focused leadership. The government of the time had no money to spend in developing the city so it declared the city a special economic zone. Foreign investors were encouraged with all manners of incentives. The first focus was on how to reform the nation’s telecommunications sector, which was in a terrible state. Like it was in Nigeria and for the bulk of Africa at the time, the telephone was for the rich. The investors changed all that and in a few years, the telephone became for all. This era gave birth to Huawei, now a giant in the global telecommunications world.
As at 1980, which marked the end of two decades of hardship and internal conflict in China, the country only had a telephone penetration rate of 0.22%, which was one of the lowest rates in the world at the time. Before the reforms, telephone lines were restricted only to senior government officials. This, according to the World Bank, was also at a time when the poverty rate was 88% and the number of registered vehicles stood at 365,000. I saw pictures of the old Shenzhen. There is no link between the pictures I saw and the Shenzhen I spent four days in. Like they say in Seven-Up commercials, the difference is clear. The architectures are a world apart; the infrastructures are incomparable. The people have become sophisticated. And the country is better for Shenzhen’s growth from the back of the world to being known as the technology and financial hub.
We need to declare special economic zones in many cities in Africa. Studying and adopting the China model may go a long way. But, are our leaders ready to go that way? Africa must ronu. Seriously!
My final take: The old leaders in Africa must give the young ones the chance to fix the mess they have put us all in. Being young is not a disease. Most of the time, it means strength; it means innovation; it means doggedness, and it means a determination to excel and prove a point. So Africa must encourage its young minds in governance, the corporate world and elsewhere. If some young people have messed up, many old people have done the unthinkable.
–Yishau is a journalist based in Lagos