The move initiated by the Commission on Africa chaired by Tony Blair but believed to be a brainchild of the Irish musician Bob Geldof aims at eliminating poverty in developing countries in our lifetime. The writing off of the debts has ignited animated debate and sparked divided opinion and sentiments around the world.
One would have expected African "beneficiaries", without exception, to celebrate the initiative. Perhaps the celebrations have been deferred until the whole package is delivered: cancellation of all African debts, aid and fair trade! Complaints have been registered by countries left out in the cold, initially, Botswana among them. Botswana is asking a pertinent question: "Are we penalised for trying to live to expectations by honouring international obligations of servicing loans and generally, cutting our cloth to suit our pocket?" Botswana is in the company of many other Africans, including South Africa, who are paying the debt of a regime that accumulated foreign loans to purchase weapons of mass destruction to massacre African rights and human dignity.
Cynics satirise writing off of debts that have in any case become dysfunctional. Some poor developing countries have stopped paying their debts, because they simply cannot afford to pay. The debts, accumulating exorbitant interest rates annually, have more than doubled their original value to date! Were countries treated like companies, they would have long pleaded insolvency and been released from their crazy obligations. But for reasons best understood by esoteric legal minds, countries do not have the privilege of becoming bankrupt; they remain solvent notwithstanding the rapacity of their rulers to make them so, by stashing the national loot in Swiss and other First World banks, in the process relegating their citizens to subsist on grass.
Some of those who are currently in the newspaper headlines, TV screens and on-line on the internet, hollering, "make poverty history," according to cynics, bear the responsibility of encouraging many of the puppets during the cold war years to accumulate un-payable debt burden by supplying them with weapons of war to suppress the masses; they have watched and nodded when they saw them build luxurious presidential palaces and buy supersonic jets to correspond with their status.
Besides all the foregoing, we have some who say the writing off of African debts is a complete sham. They argue that the developing African countries do not owe any of the developed world financial institutions a single dime. Instead, it is these developed countries that owe the developing countries trillions of dollars.
The Third World, they argue, subsidised the First World by providing them with cheap labour to extract minerals and all the raw materials they imported at give-away prices from the continent to industrialise their economies. This is in addition to the African slave labour in the sugar plantations of the South, which played a role in making the United States the economic superpower of our age.
The G8 spokespersons say the writing off of bad debts will be done on the basis of very stringent conditions of good governance. This is far from guaranteed. One member of the very Africa Commission Committee, President Zenawi of Ethiopia has already indicated the status quo will continue, by setting his armed forces on Ethiopians protesting peacefully against rigged election results only a few weeks ago. Out of 53 members of the AU, only 23 have signed the Peer Review Protocol. Not even the shining example of democracy in Africa, Botswana, is prepared to subject itself to the Peer Review mechanism scrutiny. Why? Do we have skeletons in our cupboard which even our peers must not discover? Of the 23 signatories only two, Rwanda and Ghana, have undergone the PR process.
This appears to show how precarious all the pretensions of trusting the unreformed African leaders to play ball can be.
The problem Africa faces on the important issue of good governance, which in a nutshell calls for democratic institutions, democratic principles and procedures, transparency and zero tolerance of corruption, does not only come from rogue political leaders who care nothing about the masses, but only about themselves, but, one must admit, also from the masses who consistently support election candidates and political parties who do not have their interests at heart, instead of supporting election candidates and political parties whose policies are fundamentally pro-people. A participant at an African Poverty Alleviation Seminar in Windhoek, a few years back, made me sit back and reflect.
He made what I considered a pithy observation when he said, "Our problem, on poverty eradication as Africans, is that the very poor we wish to help do not know, believe nor regard themselves as poor..." From experience, the observation struck me as expressing a semblance of the truth. It certainly makes the fight against poverty a bit more complex. Take the recent cage of corruption in SA, implicating the Deputy President of the country.
The popularity of the Deputy President, derived from his liberation struggle credentials, blinded the masses to the Deputy President's susceptibility to any offence! The African cultural background of patriarchy and blind loyalty to leaders generally is a big challenge in the transformation process to commit Africa to the war against poverty. Africa must embark on a re-education programme of turning the continental mindset of the cult of patriarchy into a positive mindset of the new age.
However, we should be grateful for the new developments that recognise mistakes of the past. Ours is to ride on the crest of the wave of the new rhetoric, to craft a pragmatic agenda that takes us to our passionate dream of making poverty history. As Africans, we should be responsible for our destiny. Blair, Brown and the rest of them should be welcome as cheerleaders.
Their wish to see the African continent emerge out of poverty should be recognised as a sincere expression of goodwill which ought not to be dismissed lightly. Africans, however, must be the players in their own game!