Africa is normally seen negatively, particularly from the West, which often sees itself as the saviour of a dark continent marred by problems. Hunger, war, disease, refugees and debt are the issues that typically dominate the news stories in the Western media. Lately talk of bad governance has been added to the list.
Associated with it is the question of corruption. The rulers of the world, and their institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, set "anti-corruption measures" as a pre-condition for getting assistance.
The issue of bad governance is used as a pretext to implement "reforms" that create favourable conditions for the rich Western governments and their multinationals to provide aid and investment, and to sanction loans for poor African countries. Quite a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also suggested that the roots of poverty are in government failure and corruption. But is this really true?
It is beyond dispute that we have rampant corrupt practices in Africa, and that this presents enormous problems for millions of people who live in abject poverty. If some of the world's assistance was not so badly used it would surely make a difference for the poor majority. Indeed, many problems are the direct result of African regimes that enrich themselves from donor money and the natural resources of Africa. But it is a distortion to view these problems as simply "African" matters. A major contributing factor is the African regimes' partners in the West.
It is important to have a proper perspective on the root cause of bad governance and corruption. Corruption is not a characteristic of Africa, rather it is a widespread problem of the greed which is a feature of capitalist society. And, corruption is not restricted to Africa. In the Middle East, the dictatorial regimes that oppress the Arab people do so with the complicity of the US and European governments. Let's not forget that it is in the West that we have witnessed some of the worst cases of corruption - cases that involve some of the very multinationals that were previously used as models of success. The example of Halliburton and Iraq may be the best known, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. And, surely, any illusion in the West as an example of democracy and good governance was also shattered with the electoral fraud in Florida in the 2000 US presidential election.
In some cases, corruption in Africa is directly linked to Western governments and companies, which found nothing wrong with buying and bribing their way through the bureaucratic apparatus of the African elite to win tenders and secure big profits. In Lesotho, one of the poorest countries, a French multinational is facing charges for bribing officials to win a tender to construct a dam. Recently Biwater, a British company, was thrown out by the Tanzanian government, which claimed that the company had made less than half the promised investment in privatised water. The underhand dealings between these multinationals and the national rulers is also shown in the ongoing trial of the former vice president of South Africa which shows that officials in his office took cash for arms deals.
Some of the most ruthless dictators in Africa only managed to survive in power because they were pampered by the West, who used them to plunder the continent's resources more effectively. Joseph Mobutu in Congo and Samuel Doe from Liberia are examples. Furthermore, Western banks happily took millions of dollars from former Nigerian dictators, ignoring the blood and sweat of so many ordinary Nigerians. The human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was barbarously hanged as a sacrificial lamb to maintain BP and Shell oil profits.
A close look at some NGOs reveals a kind of "bad governance" of their own.
Many NGOs engage in capitalist competition through the funding of projects, and no NGO funds specific projects without conditions. The so-called developmental projects are never set up under complete control of ordinary Africans who are supposed to benefit from it. The emphasis on good governance is often used to implement the specific agenda of the NGOs.
Some NGOs are setting up good initiatives, and we can work together to fight for social justice, but they should try to understand the real cause of corruption in Africa. This obsession with bad governance and corruption are a major obstacle to poverty eradication. It is the wasteful, crisis-prone and profit-driven capitalist system that causes poverty on the large scale.
Motsumi Marobela is a member of ISO Botswana