It is often said that Africa is the richest continent on planet earth, yet harbors the world’s poorest people. Poverty is a menace in Africa. It is an endangering national and international security threat that is destroying the lives of millions of Africans. Hunger, disease and now the migrant deaths in the high seas of mostly young Africans fleeing conflict and poverty, is taking a human toll on Africa.
But why is there persistent poverty in Africa? What has gone wrong in Africa? These are some of the questions that we all continue to grapple with. The poverty phenomenon got considerable attention in an international attempt to provide durable solutions. Intergovernmental organizations in collaboration with African governments, policy makers, and Nongovernmental organizations launched conferences, programs and convened meetings to understand the dilemma. While significant number of proposals emerged from these initiatives, poverty entrenched in exclusion, corruption, and mismanagement is persistent across most of Sub-Saharan Africa.
By the dawn of the 21st century and globalizations consequent effect that led to the growth of civil society and emergence of new paradigms of development, the dominant narrative is that leadership and governance failures are the root causes of poverty and misrule in sub-Saharan Africa. This is in line with Seth. D. Kaplan’s (2013) theory on Betrayed Politics, Power and Prosperity by the ruling elite. Kaplan (2013) found that “the poor in Africa are poor because they are deliberately excluded from opportunity by the elites in control of government; in cases where the poor are not entirely excluded, they are included in terms that makes it impossible to compete with other groups politically or economically. Under such circumstances, Kaplan (2013) contends that the poor are subjected to bad education and low paying jobs. For Kaplan (2013) the African elites don’t let prosperity out of their sight and reach. Since they weld the most power, they provide opportunity within their own cycle to continually give them prosperity. The leaders who control these governments are often very rich, corrupt and uses power to serve their own interest. These systems are entrenched in exclusionary social, economic and political policies, protecting only a selected few – along either ethnic, tribal and other forms of allegiance. These leaders and elites in power steal, kill and destroy anyone obstructing their “dubious” and “ambitious” stealing schemes. They can pay criminal gangs hundreds of thousands of dollars to silence voices of dissent. That is the sad African reality.
Arguably, leaders and elites in power bear an important responsibility to the people. Even Africa’s diverse traditional leadership systems share a common platform of delivering the common good for the people. They were responsible for addressing the social, economic and political well-being of the people. Traditional African leaders understands that when equitable and inclusive government policies are absent or when leaders fail to bridge divides in society, then it becomes a betrayal of the people. And the roots of modern poverty in Africa exemplifies such leadership challenges.
Amid the global progress made in reducing extreme poverty rates by half ahead of the 2015 deadline set under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), poverty continued to be prevalent in Africa, notably in some of the richest nations of the continent.The African Development Bank Group cautioned that poverty and inequality remains high as six of the 10 most unequal countries of the world are African. Official figures of the International Office of Migration (IOM) (2015) shows that between January – May 2015, most of the migrants arriving at Italy from Sub-Saharan Africa are from Nigeria, Guinea, Gambia, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Somalia. Even smaller resource poor nations with the potentials of doing well have also stalled in providing economic opportunities for the people. Drawing on the examples of resource rich nations as Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria, and poor nations with potentials as Liberia, The Gambia, and Guinea Bissau, the thesis on leadership and governance failures as driving forces of poverty provides the most compelling argument.
In Angola, three and a half decades entrenched authoritarianism has reduced the economy to a standstill. President Dos Santos ruled Angola with an iron fist under exclusionary policies that enriched his family and selected groups for decades. With its mineral riches, a majority of the people in Angola are subjected to pervasive poverty and appalling living conditions. It is estimated that about 68 percent of the Angolan population lives below the poverty line (15 percent of households living in extreme poverty, 38 percent of the population not having access to safe water, 30 percent of people have access to government health facilities). Poverty is more widespread in rural areas where 94 per cent of households are categorized as poor. Since 2012, the activities of several Angolan officials came under formal investigations for corrupt practices with foreign companies. Prominent among such scandals was the launching of formal investigations by US authorities into “whether the Angolan activities of Nazaki Oil & Gaz, had breached the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it a crime to pay or offer anything of value to foreign officials to win business” (Burgis, 2015). Angola is currently a political minefield that can rupture – the people are divided; political and economic grievances has led to a state of uncertainty and small scale protests. The African economic output analysis warned that Angolan “ economy will suffer from significantly lower oil prices, with GDP growth expected to decelerate to 3.8% in 2015 and 4.2% in 2016, down from the 4.5% registered in 2014” (African Economic Outlook, 2014).Economic progress is undermined by corruption and a lack of judicial independence because of political interference continue. This has led to growing unemployment, inflation and foreign exchange crisis.
With a wealth of natural resources, almost half of Cameroon’s 20 million people live in abject poverty, with poor healthcare, appalling transportation infrastructure, and declining education opportunities. Corruption is endemic in Cameroon. Revenues from Cameroon’s vast natural resources (Oil, Gas, and Mining) are not transparent. President Paul Biya, who came to power in 1982 continues to rule with an iron fist with a government cabinet of ministers mostly from his Beti ethnic group. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, ranked Paul Biya’s regime as one of the most corrupt in the world. It even received the title of “world’s most corrupt country” in 1998 and 1999. In a report on “Ill-Gotten Assets”, the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD) estimates Biya’s wealth to approximate over 100 million dollars (Chalude, 2009). President Paul Biya’s foreign assets are believed to include castles in France and Germany and the Isis villa on the Cote d’Azur. In Cameroon, economic growth has stagnated and government has failed to make improvements in opening markets to integrate fully into the global economy, and to provide more opportunities for citizens.
Similarly, citizens of Equatorial Guinea continue to live under extreme conditions of poverty, lacking basic’s such as clean water, effective healthcare facilities, roads and education as an autocratic leadership continues to plunder national resources. The World Bank indicated that poverty headcount ratio at national poverty lines is up to 76.8% of the population. Equatorial Guinea is one of the World’s top 30 oil producing countries, but the wealth seems to be in the hands of a few on top and not trickling down. In 2011, a United States Department of Justice (DOJ) legal action “sought to forfeit assets belonging to Teodorin Obiang including a $30 million Malibu mansion, a $38.5 million jet, seven luxury cars worth almost $3 million and valuable Michael Jackson memorabilia, such as “one white crystal-covered ‘Bad Tour’ glove” (DOJ, 2011). Further, in August 2012, French authorities seized a Paris mansion worth $186 million mansion and several luxury vehicles worth a total of $4.1 million belonging to Theodoric Obiang, Vice President of Equatorial Guinea and the son of the country’s president (Mailey, 2015). In March 2014, a French court convicted Vice President Obiang in absentia of embezzling state funds to procure the confiscated goods.
Despite the oil riches and small population of 1.6 million, most of the people of Gabon are poor. It is estimated that about 35 -40 percent of the population in Gabon live under abject poverty. Corruption is rampant in Gabon and government has failed to use its vast oil riches for the progress and prosperity of her people. Instead revenue from resources encourages rent-seeking and graft, and the judicial system continues to be arbitrary and used for political end. A United States (US) Senate Permanent Subcommittee investigation report (2010) indicated about $130 million in former President Omar Bongo’s personal bank accounts at Citibank, originating from Gabon’s public finances in 1999. A French investigation into the Giant oil company, Elf Aquitaine indicated that former president Omar Bongo was paid 50 million euros [$67-million] a year from the oil company (Ghosh, 2013). Similarly in 2013, French Police in the city of Nice raided and searched a villa belonging to President Omar Bongo in connection with an investigation of graft and corruption. This was followed by other inquiries that confiscated fleets of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and limousines in France, along with huge real estate holdings. Omar Bongo rule Gabon for 42 yrs before his death in 2011. He was succeeded by his son Ali Bongo. As the noose continues to tighten on the Bongo family’s orchestrated grand state robbery scheme, President Ali Bongo has pledged to give his share of the inheritance from his father to charity. He also said that the family will hand over properties including a villa in the capital and two homes in Paris to the state.
Three to four decades of failed leadership in Nigeria reduced the majority of the people into an abysmal state of poverty. As one of the world’s leading producers of oil, Nigeria harbors some of the world’s poorest people. Private and public sector growth is inhibited by corruption, security issues, political instability, and high levels of government spending and pervasion of the oil sector. It is estimated that 60-65 percent of Nigerians live on less than $1 a day as most of the country’s national treasure are looted into foreign accounts. The United States is helping to recover over $150 billion stolen from the oil sector alone. Further, efforts are underway to identify accounts where money has been deposited. It is alleged that some former ministers sold as much as 1 million barrels a day. Notably among the cases under scrutiny is the case of Former Nigerian Vice President Mr. Abubakar from 1999 to 2007. Over the years, questions have been raised about the source of Mr. Abubakar’s wealth. Mr. Abubakar was the subject of corruption allegations relating to the Nigerian Petroleum Technology Development Fund. A United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee Report on Keeping Foreign Corruption out of the US has linked Mr. Abubakar to several illegal financial transactions involving wire transfers in the millions. The World Bank noted that 80% of Nigeria’s oil wealth benefits only 1% of the population. Nigeria is gripped by an insurgency that is globally categorized as a religious crisis. Little did most know that poverty and inequality is a major driving mechanism of the group Boko-Haram. The group (Boko-Haram) has exploited poverty in Nigeria to gain support and unleash a reign of terror by indiscriminately targeting government institutions and civilian populations.
In miniscule resource poor Gambia, poverty is widespread and pervasive across its 1.9 million population. Rampant government corruption and patronage are exacerbated by the judiciary’s lack of independence. Despite recent reform efforts, inefficiency in business and labor regulations continues to inhibit entrepreneurial growth. Taxes in the Gambia, including municipality tax, corporate income tax, social security contributions, a national education levy, a municipal business license and a Value Added Tax (VAT) are continually increasing (Corr &Vadsaria, 2013). It is generally speculation that money from these taxes are mismanaged and not used to improve national services. There are also allegations that President Jammeh used Tax payers money to purchase a 3 million dollar Manson at Potomac, Maryland and other luxury items. Similarly, it is alleged that the president owns a lucrative national business in rice, flower, cement, sugar, cattle, and a vibrant transportation network. President Yaya Jammeh came to power in a 1994 military coup as a junior lieutenant and is today one of the richest African Leaders. President Jammeh amassed so much wealth that he openly confirmed on Gambia Radio and Television Service (GRTS) that he will never poor again and his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will never be poor as well. A February 2015 report by the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights calls on the US to freeze Jammeh’s assets and review all foreign assistance to the Gambia. The Gambia is a crippling poor state under the rule of fear.
Guinea–Bissau is one of the world’s poorest countries. It also is a major transit point for illegal South American drugs bound for Europe. Several of its senior military and government officials are allegedly involved in the drug trade. The majority poor population continues to be subjected to endemic poverty, pervasive corruption and exploitation by power hungry elites in all domains of government. After several months of been a Drug Kingpin, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency arrested the former head of the Guinea-Bissau Navy Americo Bubo Na Tchuto and six others for narcotic trafficking offenses – Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, former head of the Guinea-Bissau navy; Manuel Mamadi Mane; Saliu Sisse; Papis Djeme; and Tchamy Yala – arrived in the Southern District of New York on April 4, 2013 (DOJ, 2013). Guinea Bissau continues to be under develop with poor healthcare, and education and transportation infrastructure. Corruption is pervasive and has been aggravated by Guinea-Bissau’s prominent role in narco-trafficking and political instability. The economy remains closed to outside investment and trade, and the financial sector operates largely informally. Poverty in Guinea-Bissau is largely a result of failed leadership entrenched in the greed for power and riches.
Even in post conflict Liberia that suffered decade’s long civil war, the glimmer of hope that came with donor support and successful democratic elections dissipated into thin air. Millions of Dollars in aid money and its vast natural resources continue to be mismanaged. Liberia is rich in natural resources including rubber and iron ore. About 70% of the population lives under abject poverty. A US Federal Bureau of Investigation has probed into a US$2.5bln asset belonging to Robert Sir leaf, a son of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sir leaf. Post war reconstruction efforts have failed considerably in Liberia. The country remains fragile. Endemic corruption, high unemployment, and widespread illiteracy continue to pose serious developmental challenges. Political instability and international sanctions have destroyed most large businesses and driven out many foreign investors. In 2014 the outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa caused several deaths.
No one can deny the progress made to end poverty and misrule by other states of Sub-Saharan Africa. Economic and political advancements in Namibia, Tanzania, Ghana and Senegal provides some glimmer of hope for the untapped potentials of sub-Saharan Africa. Arguably, those success cases are linked to the strong institutional foundations that gave people opportunities to shape their political and economic well-being. Making progressive sustainable change in a country is quite an enduring task. Africa needs leadership with determination and commitment to the well-being of the people. Such a leadership must decentralize power, end the neopatrimonialism state system and its entrenched patrimonial institutions, build institutions that enables broader citizen participation in decision making, embark on economic reforms, and increase spending in underdeveloped and under privileged parts of the country. Perhaps such policies can end entrenched poverty, exclusion, corruption and mismanagement. Leadership entrenched in exclusionary policies limiting opportunities is a flagrant betrayal of the people in all its form.