The World Economic Forum On Africa (WEF on Africa) feels more posh than most of the business gabfests on the continent. Not even the Africa Upstream, which provides top oil industry executives the” business reasons” for travelling to Cape Town, to luxuriate in the “Southern sun” every November, gets anywhere close to being as upscale.
Charlotte Bauer, an editor with the Johannesburg weekly Mail and Guardian, confessed that minutes into the opening plenary of the June 2009 edition, she began to get “Blackberry envy”. She wrote in the paper’s June 12, 2009 edition “My neighbours with smart phones in the packed hall at the Cape Town International Convention Centre were kept entertained as the contents of their inboxes became more fascinating compared with live proceedings”.
African leaders invited to lead conversations at WEF On Africa are themselves very conscious of being in an important place. “I am only attending Davos for the first time”, enthused John Kuffour, the then (outgoing) Ghanaian president, at the 2008 edition of the conference. His mistake of calling the scenic Swiss resort, where the big, global WEF takes place every February, to describe his pleasure at being in a regional meeting of WEF on African soil, was a profound Freudian slip. Imagine IF Mr. Kuffour was invited to the big event?
There wasn’t as much a sense of bonhomie at the 2009 WEF on Africa as it was in ‘2008. Absent in 2009 was the heady self congratulatory air, and the pervasive feeling of optimism-encouraged by high commodity prices and six percent growth rates- that marked the 2008 edition. The economic meltdown in the West had taken its toll on Africa’s commodity prices and the South African economy, the continent’s industrial engine, was imploding.
The somber mood of the 2009 edition of WEF on Africa notwithstanding, there was hardly any evidence that African leaders, as a collective, had learned lessons from the crash of 2008 and were desperate to turbo-charge the continent’s economy to achieve huge capacity growth. There were no ambitious, large scale, self driven projects on energy, intra continental transportation or local content enhancing, innovative technology projects that were going to dramatically transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at terribly short notice. Lessons from other parts of the world were lost on Africa: China and India were growing at much faster rates, driven by high technology enterprises and the Middle East, especially the Gulf States, were unhappy with their own apparent backwardness and were keen on spending their way into the 21st century. In Africa, on the contrary, it was the usual softly-softly, postage stamp approach; small scale power projects, “helping” small rural farming with subsistence methods and facilities that involve the heavy participation of Chinese investors as well as more investment in mining that were driven solely by outside parties.
I remember asking a question on investment opportunities in some country in East Africa and the Minister on the panel who responded to me said : “The Chinese investors we are talking to are…” I felt very tired.
In spite of this poor showing by Africa’s political leadership, I still allowed myself to be conned.
This is how it happened.
At a second day session on Africa’s agricultural potential, at which Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, emphasized the work his foundation was doing with small scale farmers, I asked whether it wasn’t time for African policymakers to start focusing on large scale farming. I noted that large scale farmers on the continent were mostly the settler minorities; Indians in East Africa and Afrikaners in Southern Africa. In Nigeria, now, everybody is talking about the “success” of the Zimbabwean farmer in the country. It occurred to me, I explained to the audience, to wonder, “Where is the scale minded African entrepreneur in farming? Where is the native African industrialist? Where is The Successful Black Commercial Farmer?”
That question earned me both admiration and reproach. At the coffee break
shortly after, Edward Boateng, creator of the CNN/Multichoice African Journalists Awards, walked up and gave me a short lecture. “You shouldn’t be alienating people” he charged. “East African Indians and South African Afrikaners are Africans, too. Africa needs all her talent”. To Arthur Mutamburra, Zimbabwe’s Deputy Prime Minister, I had, with my comments, become an instant friend. “This is the man who asked the question about black entrepreneurship”, Mutamburra told his wife, Susan, as a way of introductions.
I became, at terribly short notice, a “family friend” of Zimbabwe’s third couple.
And to my surprise, I was feeling cool about it. When Susan Mutambura earnestly explained that she’d been hoping to visit Lagos, the city of my birth, in Nigeria, I felt an adrenalin rush. And I found myself feeling quite exhilarated when the Deputy Prime Minister himself said over and over again: “You must visit Zimbabwe”.
The next place I got “invited” to join Africa’s political class was at the session on Free Trade Zones. After I complained that Africa’s big projects were perpetually on the drawing board, Felix Mswati, Zambia’s Minister of Trade and Industry said pointedly, “my friend, Africa’s current generation of politicians are different from those of the past. Now we want to do business, not politics”. Later, he gave me his card and allowed me to get into a discussion between him, his Ghanaian counterpart and an American State Department representative, who kept on repeating: “It’s true, Africa has a new breed of leaders”. I am surprised, as I write this, that I didn’t interrogate their conclusions, I didn’t argue with them. I was too content to be allowed to hang out with ministers. I didn’t even request for interviews, privately, to question these assertions. What new breed of leaders? Which African country is a showpiece in the direction of people centred development? What projects were happening in Zambia in which Zambian entreprenueurs were taking the initiative? What’s taking place in Ghana that could be compared with the quantum leap in economic progress that took place in Singapore 20 years ago, or in South Korea 15 years ago?
Two days later in the same premises: the Cape Town International Conference Centre. The World Economic Forum had wrapped up and South Africa’s most popular Conference venue was hosting the 4th Cape Town I International Book Fair. Here I attended a discussion entitled Hollow Men: Can Africa’s Leaders fulfill Africa’s promise? The conversation was between Moeletsi Mbeki, a hugely popular South African public intellectual and brother of the former South African president Thabo Mbeki, and Achille Mbembe, the Cameroon born scholar described by some as one of the most brilliant theorists of postcolonial studies writing today. Much of the discussion centered around Mbeki’s new book, Architects of Poverty: Why Africa’s Capitalism needs Changing. A highpoint of Mbeki’s argument was that Africa’s current brand of capitalism was comparable with the economic situation in 8th century England, where a very few members of the gentry rode roughshod over the large population of the working class. He spoke about how liberation fighters on the continent always turned out to be oppressors themselves. And he used examples from Algeria (the men who fought the war of independence turned out to be overlords themselves) to South Africa (liberation comrades are the new fat cats) .
Although I felt it was going to be incongruous to ask Mr Mbeki his thoughts on the notion that there was a new breed of African leaders all over the continent. I asked him anyway. He looked me over in a way that suggested I hadn’t been following up closely on events and then he asked, “Who are these new breed of African leaders? Wasn’t that what was sold about a decade ago. Has there been any major difference in the quality of life of the people, on average?”
In that brief moment of Mr Mbeki’s response, my mind went to my repartee with the ministers at the World Economic Forum a few days before, at the same venue. I knew I had been conned.