What do these four events have in common?
•In 1994 Rwanda faced the world’s worst post-World War II genocide.
Beginning April 6 through the next 100 days, at least one million people were slaughtered. The majority of them were Tutsi, like the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) that was fighting the ‘Hutu dominated” (to use the popular description) regime in Kigali. Thousands of moderate Hutu thought to be unsupportive of the extremist regime were also killed.
•From 1983 to ‘85 the famine in Ethiopia killed an estimated 400,000 people. The epicenter of the famine was a place called Korem. There the great Kenyan photojournalist Mo Amin shot footage of suffering on a scale the world had not seen for long, and galvanised international action that led to the “live aid” concerts phenomenon – and made Bob Geldof a global icon.
•In December 2007, Kenya’s election went horribly wrong when the outcome was disputed. In the worst violence Kenya had witnessed since the Mau Mau rebellion at the end of the 1950s, the country erupted in an orgy of violence that killed at least 1,500 people. More than 600,000 became internally displaced, and several thousands fled as refugees into Uganda. To this day, there are still Kenyan refugees in Uganda, and people in the IDP camps.
•On June 4, 1979 a wildly contrarian (even crazy) young Ghanaian junior officer, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, and his colleagues seized power in Ghana. Among his first acts, Rawlings had the former military dictator Ignatius Acheampong and five other generals—-Joy Amedume, Yaw Boakye, Roger Felli, Kotei, and Utuka—tied to metal drums at the beach and executed.
The list of such events in Africa is long, but these four make the point.
Though Rwanda continues to suffer the effect of the genocide, and the hate speech that led to the genocide has bred a suspicion against unfettered free speech that has dulled the country’s media scene, it has nevertheless done well from the crisis.
Because everything was destroyed and nearly everyone was scattered, Rwanda built totally new institutions: From the examination board (which it didn’t have before the genocide), to a Judiciary, police, hospitals and schools. When the RPA took power Rwanda had less than 2,000 University graduates (after 32 years of independence). Today it produces that number in a year!
Rwanda’s telephone system had been smashed. It took the most cost effective route to rebuilding its telecommunication system – and became the first country in East, Central, and West Africa to establish a mobile phone system.
Without old vested education interests, an established bureaucracy, and an anti-reformist political, the now ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party had no old institutions and political establishment to block progress and oppose the fight against corruption. Without the killings and destruction, Rwanda would be a primitive backwater, not the country with the least level of corruption in Eastern region, the easiest ease-of-doing-business index, by far the cleanest, most orderly city in the region.
Mo Amin son, Salim Amin, recently returned to Korem. Twenty-seven years later, it has very modern agriculture, and is highly irrigated. Not even a rosy-eyed optimist would have imagined then that Korem would be where it is today in 100 years.
Ethiopia and Rwanda are the only two African countries have achieved the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) target of growing agriculture by 6-8 percent. Ethiopia still suffers famine. The difference is that hardly anyone dies one anymore. The country has learnt its lessons.
In Kenya’ case, by the time of the election in 2007, the country had struggled fruitlessly to write a new constitution and establish democracy for over 20 years. In August 2010, nearly 24 years later, a new constitution was passed by a landslide vote. It has, by far, the most progressive bill of rights of any constitution in Africa. And, with the debatable exception of South Africa’s, Africa’s most liberal constitution.
The bloodletting of 2007 finally frightened Kenya’s corrupt and callous political class into cutting its losses, or else risk losing everything in the next round of violence. It also scared ethnic entrepreneurs, but also energised the progressives. Without the madness that followed the 2007 poll, Kenya wouldn’t have got to August 2010.
Ghana has again become a model African country. It is one of the few where a ruling party organises an election and complains that it has been cheated by the opposition. It is also one of the few, where an opposition victory is no longer big news. It has one of Africa’s freest media, and fastest growing economies.
If Rawlings, in his near insanity, had not shaken the place up and finished off the old guard (ghastly as the executions might have been), Ghana would be like Nigeria: Hostage to corrupt forces always undermining reform, bleeding the country, and fomenting sectarian murder.
Why is it necessary to deliver extreme shocks to African political systems (and societies in general) before real change happens? First, it is because, given the disparities between the towns and countryside and distribution of opportunities, the Establishment and political classes have disproportionate advantage and power. They have totally no incentive to listen to the street and villages.
Secondly, because power offers so many advantages, and the loss of it can lead to drastic reversal of fortunes, the old ruling classes become overly bitter at the loss of privilege. Because it is easy to galvanise tribal grievance and mobilise it to undermine a new order, the destabilising ability of the old group of rulers is very high. Disrupting it by conventional democratic means can take long, and not guaranteed to succeed. The old order therefore sometimes gives up only when the cost of continuing becomes too high.
Finally, political debate is too ritualised in Africa. Sure, people talk, and the media points out official failings, but these exercises are supposed to be no more than a town circus. The rulers are not expected to listen seriously. A raging mob at the door is often the only thing that opens up the ears of the African politician – or military dictator.