Commentary: Motorcades a sign of Africa's values deficit
Next week, Washington will seize up. Roads will be closed and traffic will be snarled in maybe the worst tie-ups the city has ever seen, except for those on Sept. 11, 2001.
This will not be because of a national security drill, but because 50 heads of state from Africa will be in town to meet with President Obama — and apparently every one of these leaders will have a motorcade. A motorcade?
The leaders of some of the poorest countries on earth — where starvation prevails — will be riding around Washington in motorcades. This is not just appalling, it is symptomatic of the troubles of Africa.
The peoples of Africa are not monolithic: They are divided by culture, language and religion. But they are united by the thoroughgoing ineptitude of their leaders; those leaders’ love of the trappings of power, including motorcades and grand homes; and a far-reaching sense that the wealth of the nationals they lead is also primarily their own wealth.
Whoever in the Obama administration thought that the visitors should have motorcades not only did a disservice to the workers and residents of Washington, but also to the kind of expectation he needs to instill in African leadership: service, rectitude and real care for their people.
The kleptocracy that has characterized so much post-colonial government in Africa is fed by delusional grandeur, insane egoism and a profound indifference to the people who suffer for want of food, shelter, sanitation, medicine, education and employment. The people of Africa cry out for real leadership in their need.
There is a kind of thinness that Africans suffer that one does not see in Europe or America. I am always struck by this cadaverous appearance of people in Africa; often they have had enough food to stay alive, but just.
Living as we do in a country where obesity is widespread, I shudder at what I see in Africa, which is diverse in so many ways and bound by the same awful bonds: bonds of hunger, bonds of joblessness. They are there to be seen in Senegal or Malawi, Kenya or Ghana, and even in rich South Africa.
Outside of bad government and relentless unemployment — 80 percent, and more in some countries — the other scourge is violence and the spread of small arms.
To me this is the most perplexing because when I grew up roaming around in what is now Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, violence was unknown. Roy Wilensky, the prime minister of those countries — which were linked for a decade by the British administration into a federation — drove his own car every day and gave lifts to strangers thumbing a ride. I used to ride with him to school, and later to the newspaper office where I worked.
I can tell you that in giving rides, this prime ministerial chauffeur was color- blind and security blind. Motorcades did not exist and the prime minister lived in a suburban house without so much as a policeman on duty, as I recall. He lived up the street from us.
My youth colored my view of Africa. I see it not as the Dark Continent, but rather as the Light Continent; a place of beauty and talented people.
Obama should tell his African colleagues to forget the trappings of leadership and try the real thing. He should persuade them that Africa’s wealth is in its people, but they will not be free if they grow up in a culture of corruption that is inhibiting, draining and self-defeating.
The symbol of bad government in Africa is the Mercedes-Benz automobile. Dictators and plain incompetents love them. There are jokes in local languages about the “Mercedians,” meaning politicians.
So endemic is the political class in Africa’s commitment to this luxury automobile that Mercedes-Benz is building a plant in South Africa to manufacture the most extravagant of these vehicles, the 12-cylinder S600.
Sadly there is a market in the political hierarchy of Africa as, even sadder, there always is for military equipment. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” was the slogan of the African National Congress. It means “God Bless Africa.” Indeed.