Africa: Leaders Must Rethink ‘African Solutions for African Problems’

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

For more than a decade now, Africa has been trying to address its developmental and political problems through an approach favouring home-grown initiatives.

These range from mobilizing and using African institutions to deal with specific African crises – such as the mediation of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Zimbabwe, of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development in East Africa and of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in Liberia and Sierra Leone – to developing grand continental reform projects – such as the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), intended to improve Africa’s economic and governance performance respectively.

As we enter a new year, we have to acknowledge that the “African solutions for African problems” approach has had some glaringly painful failures. The continuing crises in Somalia, in Zimbabwe, in Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the surrounding Great Lakes region all demonstrate the weaknesses of the way “African solutions” have been implemented in 2008.

These weaknesses must be addressed in 2009. The year ahead should be one of rethinking how Africa deals with problems in a manner that is effective and restores the continent’s image and initiative.

How have African solutions in these regions failed? Simply put, all four represent scenarios in which the countries concerned are either not being well governed, or not governed at all, and where African leaders and institutions have either taken the responsibility or been mandated to resolve the crises but have failed to restore stability, resulting in continued or increasing misery for the peoples concerned.

These failures exacerbate the perception that the continent cannot fashion and implement effective and thus credible solutions. This diminishes the continent’s image, despite notable successes like the recent Ghanaian election.

In principle, Africans and their leaders should seek to take their destinies into their own hands and provide solutions that allow them to run their own affairs. Yet there is no in shame in acknowledging the fact when homegrown formulas do not work, and in seeking outside help. This is particularly important in today’s globalised world. It is an approach followed – with much difficulty – in the hybrid United Nations-African Union force in Darfur.

There are three key reasons for failure: an almost unquestioning adherence to protecting state sovereignty, dependency on forces outside the continent and lack of leadership. Together, these stifle innovation, limit the effectiveness of proposed solutions and alienate potential allies.

First, the continent’s endorsement of the leaders of collapsed or collapsing states such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and the DRC, far from promoting sovereignty, negates it. Sovereignty resides in the people, who only delegate it to leaders. In a situation in which the expression of this sovereignty is denied the people, such as in Zimbabwe; where those entrusted with it are unable to exercise it practically, such as in the DRC; or where the institutions supporting it are in question, such as in Somalia, protecting a government makes no sense – it allows a regime to maintain a veneer of statehood only on the basis of recognition by others. Thinking beyond this paradigm is urgently needed.

Second, while African leaders appear united in calling for indigenous solutions, few have demonstrated a conceptual or practical commitment to the notion. Their initiatives and solutions have depended on Africa’s “partnership” with the nebulous “international community”. A major component of this “community” comprises the very same former colonists who, we claim, have (i) “created” Africa’s problems by colonizing them, (ii) “interfered” in Africa’s internal affairs, (iii) shaped the international system to serve their own interests (in trade, economy and international relations), (iv) dictated values of good governance and economic performance that are “foreign” to Africans, and (v) “abandoned/marginalized” Africa by withdrawing aid and political support after the Cold War.

This kind of dependency – developing solutions on the basis of actions of others, and blaming them when things don’t work – points to our lack of good leadership. Many initiatives have been developed to move Africa forward: Nepad, the APRM, regional conflict mediation and regional economic blocs. The factor critical to the success of these initiatives, as matters currently stand, appears to be the availability of “international support” to make them work: for example, “international” pressure on President Robert Mugabe to implement an agreement in Zimbabwe reached through African mediation, “international” logistical and material support for African-designed peacekeeping in Darfur and Somalia, “international” pressure on the Sudanese government to stop killing its own people, and “development partner” resources to undertake APRM assessments and implement their recommendations!

Is it not time for African leaders to begin thinking innovatively and demonstrating commitment by putting their resources where their agreements are?

A few examples may point the way to rescuing African solutions: Nigerian-led peacekeeping missions in West Africa, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, SADC’s intervention in the Lesotho crisis of 1998, and Ghana’s conduct of the December 2008 election. If initiatives like Nepad and APRM are to succeed as concrete manifestations of African solutions, peer learning and support for the principles of good governance, and not upholding the sovereignty of discredited leadership, will need to be demonstrated.

Pressure to change and to pursue the interests of Africans should come primarily from African leaders in their SADC, Ecowas and AU forums, with international support doing only that – supporting. Only then will Africans and the world take African solutions seriously.