While hiking up in the hills, a JICA guy pointed out a new groundwater and irrigation project in a valley far below. He explained that it was to improve the water supply in a nearby village.
“Who did that for them, then?” I asked cynically.
A remarkable feature of this country is just how little the physical infrastructure has been improved since distant colonial times. After decades of independence there are still only the old European buildings lining the streets. There are no new, steel and glass skyscrapers. The heritage buildings themselves have long since fallen into disrepair; stately old mansions are like Detroit slums and elegant hotels are now the moldy habitat of a staff grown as rude as Aeroflot hostesses.
The cable car, destroyed in the war, remains unrepaired. Same with the port. It was once one of the largest in the world. The water system is poor. The electricity is touch-and-go. The roads are potholed and often unsealed. Everyone agrees that everything was better under the French.
Whenever something new happens it is done by outsiders. Aside from the French, the Chinese built a technical college and the EU put in some solar lighting. Some international aid agencies built new schools but they were chased out of the country and the schools were taken over by the government. They are now overcrowded indoctrination centres like the rest. The French repaired the railway. In colonial times it ran twice a day but now it only runs on special occasions and can be hired out for events. The government has successfully stamped out all the trade that once made it viable. There’s nothing coming in and nothing going out. The country used to produce cars, tiles and many other goods but today its main export is refugees. How strange and sad it is to see the abandoned Renault factory up the road from my house. The sign is still there, and opposite you’ll still find the Renault Café doing some scant business.
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
Hilariously, the government imposes enormous tariffs on all imports in order to increase self-sufficiency. The result is simply that everything is enormously expensive and they still don’t produce anything themselves. It actually makes it harder for local manufacturers because they can’t import the machinery, parts or raw materials they need to make stuff.
The electricity has improved in recent months. The government has been boasting about it. Finally, a win for self-sufficiency? Nope. They helped out a certain oil-producing nation with its dodgy war effort and got free oil in return. Hence the power plant now runs almost twenty-four hours a day. We dread the time the war ends and things go back to normal.
Whenever foreigners foolishly splash cash on this country the government crows and lets everyone know how awesome they are. Look at us! We got the power back on. We built a new university.
Have they no shame?
Many countries hire foreign contractors to build their infrastructure. Nothing wrong with that. What irks me is that this country is demonstrably incapable of getting anything done at all under its own steam. Nor are they able to maintain what little they inherited. Everything is falling apart and it’s all their fault.
There were once whitefellahs who really believed in this country. They thought it would be a demonstration to other African nations on how to get things done. They thought the very nice constitution put together at independence would be implemented, that public spending would focus on people’s needs, that female circumcision would be eradicated; they thought that this successful country would be imitated by many other Africans, just as many Asians copied Japan, and that the whole continent would thereby be much improved.
The reality is that this country fell into the old African disease. The bold and brilliant independence leader soon became President-For-Life, public funds were spent primarily on the military while infrastructure and education were left begging; the constitution was never implemented and probably never will be. Rule here is typically African: a strongman imposes capricious, brutal, self-serving and often very stupid policies. There is no opposition. If this ruler were removed he’d be replaced by another strongman. Meet the new boss, same as old boss.
There are more than fifty countries in Africa. You’d think that one of them might have got its shit together. Maybe even two or three. But if you look around, while you can see occasional examples of principled or competent leaders, once they are gone the country suffers a return to the mean. Even the more developed and civilized countries, say, the Ivory Coast or Senegal, get much rougher as you head inland. Even the liberal democracies like South Africa and Botswana are permanently teetering on the brink of totalitarianism or collapse.
If you want to see a sensible approach to Africa, look to the materialistic and amoral Chinese. They see Africans as useless and incapable of getting anything done without outside help. They offer them various forms of assistance with infrastructure purely because all roads, railways and ports lead to China – and back again, with commodities going out and manufactured goods coming in. Plus the bad loans for white elephants can later be ‘forgiven’ in return for PLA bases. The Chinese care not a jot for human rights, especially not those of Africans. All they care about are the resources under their feet, and the ports where their navy might dock. Chinese aid comes with no strings attached. They just want their pound of flesh.
Is there anything wrong with that? Perhaps only a lunatic would think that he could fix the problems on this continent, or think that he is to blame for them all.
If Africans are incapable, and the Chinese are amoral, then I think we Westerners are just insane.