Why we do politics of poverty

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and several African leaders attend the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg on July 30, 2023.

Photo credit: AFP

So, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg last week came and went.

The few African leaders who attended were in fine form, with rousing speeches, on why Africa is still largely a poor continent. They touched on many of the reasons; dark global forces that exploit Africa, the damage of nearly 400 years of the enslavement of Africans; the disruption and plunder of nearly 100 years of colonialism; and the rigged international system that followed after independence.

Only the recently-arrived-on-the-scene Burkina Faso military leader Captain Ibrahim Traoré touched on the internal reasons for Africa’s miserable state. Noting the immense wealth of the continent, he blamed past African leaders for mistakes and denounced their “beggary” mentality.

However, Capt Traoré seems to be the kind of ruler who preaches water and drinks wine. While he correctly noted the shameful spectacle of going to Russia to beg it to return to its grain deal with Ukraine (which it invaded over a year ago) and get their food and fertiliser exports to Africa back on track, his actions suggested his heart was elsewhere.

He didn’t visit a fertiliser or tractor factory in Russia. Instead, he and his delegation were particularly excited by a weapons exhibition the Russians had put on.

That is part of the problem. People don’t eat guns. Africa has too many guns but too few tractors, irrigation rigs, seed plants, fertiliser factories and food silos. But the proceedings in St Petersburg still helped to spotlight Africa’s “development challenge”. In these desperate times, it is time to ask the uncomfortable questions.

History tells us that, contrary to the poor outcomes, African leaders know how to do development and create wealth. They and their cronies put their children through the best schools—at home or abroad. The problem is that they don’t do it for the rest of the children in the country.

They understand that good health is important for progress. They know what a good healthcare system looks like and they go for it—outside their countries.

They, their relatives and buddies are corrupt and plunder their countries. But that is not because they don’t know that it is harmful. If you think so, try breaking into an African president’s farm and stealing his cows or swindle him of his money. You will, as has happened across the breadth of this continent, end up slipping in the bathroom and falling to your death.

Provide it for themselves

It is not that they don’t understand that housing is important. For Christ’s sake, the fellows build palaces with heated swimming pools for themselves. For every public good we demand of our leaders, they provide it for themselves and their circle, to world-class levels. So, it is more likely that they know but deny the goods to the people.

Why? One of the biggest mistakes we make is to presume that a healthy and wealthy nation is good for the leaders and, therefore, it is a goal they should pursue with zeal. After six decades, we have to confront the possibility that it is not.

If you think hard about it, there are few incentives for them to improve a lot of their countries. Educated and prosperous people are hard to control and bend to your will. As we have seen in industrialised countries, soon you can’t find labour (for big people’s farms, for example) at cheap rates.

However, it is politics itself that provides the greatest incentive for leaders to pursue pro-poverty policies. In some parts of Africa today, you can buy a vote for $1. In others, that one dollar will get you five votes. In any African country that became as rich as South Korea or Singapore, you would have to pay up to 20 to 50 times for that single vote. Poverty is good for politicians because it keeps the cost of getting and retaining power low.

People without healthcare will deify you if you built a simple health centre, put there a nurse, some cough syrup and Panadol and run a year-long immunisation campaign. If they have a good hospital, with doctors, and all the medicine, they will not shut up. They will start complaining there are not enough dialysis machines, waiting times for the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans are too long and the intensive care unit is too crowded.

Not all African countries are democracies or pretend democracies. Our friend in Burkina Faso is pure military. He should be able to do better since he doesn’t have to worry about the cost of electoral politics. However, he needs a more passive and poor population more because he doesn’t have the lie of democratic consent to play with.

That said, as his early predecessor Capt Thomas Sankara proved, a military dictator often has more wiggle room to do good if he puts his heart to it. He just has to accept that the personal cost will be higher.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". @cobbo3