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Masquerading Africa

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Masquerading Africa

Everywhere in Africa, people take on roles they cannot fulfil – but the worst part is that we go along with this pretence and then express disappointment when they fail to deliver. By Onyekachi Wambu.

Holiday season in Eastern Nigeria – the masquerades are taking place, scaring young children; their performers held back aggressively by young men with whips, attempting to control their destructive potency.

The children are terrified by the outward manifestation of ancestral and other figures from the spirit world, dutifully giving them the tributes they demand – money, drinks, food, in return for being left alone. While next to them the adults smile, enjoying the fact that despite the mask, they recognise who is really underneath. They know their neighbour is pretending, assuming a role beyond his human capabilities. 

In effect it is all a performance, with the necessary seasoning of menace, tension and excitement, but a performance nevertheless. However, like Santa Claus, it is only the children that treat it literally as they do not yet understand the ‘game’ until wisdom breaks through. 

There is something about this masquerade scene that speaks more broadly to the contemporary African condition. Everywhere we find people donning masks and pretending to be what they are not – civil engineers who can’t build bridges, business people who merely collect rents on contracts they sell on since they can’t deliver; lawyers and judges overseeing lawless polities. And we sit by watching them – most of us knowing that they are really only the neighbour next door, and yet we behave like the children, taking the performance at face value and continuing to believe the spectacle.

All of this has serious consequences for our societies. Take the governance masquerade performance, which has overwhelming ramifications for our welfare and ultimately, our freedom as well.

Outsourcing government

There have been some ominous developments recently which should be sounding loud alarm bells for Africa over the capacity of the governing class to solve our own problems. They show that the situation is becoming critical and may indeed involve us again losing key sectors of our economy or even our sovereignty to foreign players.

The first is that many of our governments have borrowed heavily to fund major Chinese financed and built infrastructure projects. Increasingly they are unable to repay the loans, and having signed contracts they are unable to deliver on, are on the verge of ceding control of major assets such as ports, airports (in the case of Zambia) to their Chinese creditors. Those managing and running these assets are not able to generate the necessary profits to deliver on business plans. Of course, we have been here before with Western creditors.

The second is the idea thrown up by Germany’s Africa Commissioner, Gunter Nooke, proposing that the EU or the World Bank, should build and run African cities to create jobs and help stem the migration flows to Europe. These cities would operate like ‘free zones’, with the foreign entity bringing investment and expertise, while imposing their own laws, running their own system and policing the zone.

The idea is not a new one – when a similar idea was first proposed in 2008 there was interest from Madagascar’s President, Marc Ravalomanana. However, the backlash from ordinary people in the country was so intense that it was one of the major reasons for the fall of Ravalomanana’s government.

One could see why people were angry. If you have elected a government to solve problems, why is the government outsourcing this to another government? Is this not an admission that the government itself is clueless, masquerading as a government, when it is merely playing a rent-seeking, middle man role? 

Nooke and the Germans, who are proposing free zones as part of a ‘Marshall Plan’-type African recovery scheme, no longer want to play along with the idea of masquerades that pass for effective African governance. They are behaving increasingly like the knowing adult, while many Africans continue to view these governments with child-like wonder, dutifully passing on whatever tributes they demand. 

The simple theory of democratic governance is that parties lay out their solutions to provide safety and improve living standards, which they try to deliver on following elections.  Meanwhile the opposition provide their alternative solutions while holding the government to account. The rest, as we have seen recently in DRC, Gabon, Cameroon and so many other countries, is merely ineffective governance masquerading as spectacle. NA                                

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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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