Ebe M. Ochonu:

George Ayittey's write up on Africa's debt crisis (dialogue 773)
raises a lot of contentious issues. Because aid and debt are two
extremely important issues on which Africa's economic and social
future partly hinge, it is important to respond strongly to some of
the issues in the piece. I hope that other members of the forum will
weigh in with their own thoughts.

First of all, Ayittey's write-up does a disservice to the Blair plan
by reducing it to yet another attempt to raise and throw money at
Africa's myriad problems. This is an unfair caricature of a
three-pronged, nuanced proposal, of which aid is only one aspect.
Debt relief is another aspect. For me, though, the most important
aspect of that proposal-and this is what makes it radical in an
unprecedented way-is its courage in calling for the many anti-Africa
Western trade practices, not the least of which are the agricultural
subsidies which not only close Western markets to African producers
but also belies the West's rhetoric of free trade and globalization.
If this proposal is embraced at next month's WTO talks, it will do
infinitely more for Africa than aid or debt forgiveness can do over
the long term.

Secondly, the write-up's comparison of African aid to the Marshall
plan is outrageous, misleading, and disingenuous. By Ayittey's own
assertion, the $450 Billion purportedly "pumped" into Africa between
1960 and 1997 was not free money but a plethora of soft loans, with
conditions that are anything but soft. The Marshall plan, on the
other hand, was direct, free America aid, the only condition being
that the nations of Europe should form a collective and devise a
comprehensive plan on how to spend the money. One could say the world
has changed and that the political threats and goals which made the
case for the Marshall Plan no longer exist today. That may be so, but
who is to say that hunger, disease, destitution, and anger in Africa
pose a lesser threat to the United States than did the advancing wave
of Soviet Socialism?

Yes, aid without conditionalities is counterproductive. But does
Ayittey not know that all previous aid to Africa carried stringent
conditionalities but that African leaders and states, with the active
support and encouragement of Western actors and financial
institutions circumvented these conditions, thus getting us into this
conundrum? If these conditionalities have been applied to African
regimes and haven't worked, isn't it time we looked at applying the
same set of ethical conditionalities to the Western institutions and
actors who facilitate the merry-go-round of aid, embezzlement, Swiss
accounts, and more recycled aid-loans?

Ayittey argues that no African government has been called to "give
full public accounting of who took what loan for what purpose" and of
how the loans were misused and squandered. I have no doubt in my mind
that the day of reckoning is coming for all the leaders who mortgaged
our collective patrimony and destiny by taking and squandering
foreign loans and aid on behalf of expectant and needy Africans. But
I have no illusions that the West will be the champion of such a
project of accountability. The West will not demand such an
accounting, NOT because of their historical hangovers, as Ayittey
erroneously alleges; as anyone can see, the West has since shrugged
off the guilt of the slave trade and of colonialism, and mainstream
revisionist histories which exonerate and assuage the West's
conscience now abound. Rather, it is because such a full accounting
will inevitably indict the West and its complicit financial
institutions, not to mention some respectable Western figures who
have done and still do business with African leaders and who are
either in power in Western countries or have politicians in these
countries who are beholden to them. Such a process of accounting will
open Pandora's Box and reveal the underbelly of the fraudulent,
two-sided aid-loan-corruption poverty producing machine. This is why
the West will not demand full public accounting. They will not
investigate their own institutions and practices.

Ayittey's analysis is thus a one-sided one at best. If African
kleptocrats have yet to be held accountable for collecting and
misusing dubious aid, no Western contractors and economic hitmen
(apologies to John Perkins), who wickedly pushed (read imposed)
dubious waste-pipe projects on greedy African bureaucrats and
politicians, have been called to account for their destructive
adventures on the continent. They, too, must not go scot-free.

A big chunk of the write-up is really a simplistic and uncritical
regurgitation of boring, outmoded IMF, World Bank inspired free
market postulations bemoaning the size of African civil services and
recommending the drastic downsizing of the public sector. If this
overly theoretical and textbookish prescription hadn't already been
discredited in many reputable intellectual and academic circles as a
one-size-fits-all, I would spend some time on it. Perhaps Ayittey and
other small government advocates can tell us how the innocent civil
servants to be massively retrenched will be absorbed into other
niches without further burdening the informal and traditional
sectors, since the private sector is either non-existent or stagnant
in most African countries. It seems that in the battle to achieve the
neoclassical economic Holy Grail of small government, real humans and
their economic fates are expendable.

Ayittey's most contentious postulation is that "no amount of debt
relief and increased aid will help Africa until Africa cleans up its
own house." This would be a noble assertion were it not for the
fallacy which inheres in it. How can Africa not be better off, even
with all the corruption and waste, if it no longer has to pay the
billions of dollars that it pays annually to service debts that were
dubiously collected and that ended up for the most part in the West
with the active collaboration of Western institutions and persons? In
any case, the example of Nigeria, where the country has spent more
than four times the amount of the original debt amount in servicing
and interest payment and is still left with a rapidly appreciating
principal, makes repayments of the foreign debts and the withholding
of so-called debt relief immoral. Nigeria's example is a microcosm of
the African debt situation. Isn't it morally unacceptable for a
country to continue to pay interests and service charges on dubious
debts for which servicing payments alone have eclipsed the original
debt amount? If only Ayittey would temper his economics with some
morality, he'd grasp the moral dimension to this discourse of debt

Let me therefore state upfront that I do not believe that debt relief
is a charitable gesture on the part of the West; they are merely
trying, rather belatedly, to make right what they messed up, carry
out a token restitution for the crime of willfully participating in
questionable loan schemes and monetary imports from Africa, which
have left the continent comatose.

Nor do I subscribe to the notion of aid as aid. These aids-and they
need to become completely free-are also token restitutive and
compensatory payments deserved by Africa and Africans as a negligible
material compensation, not for the slave trade and colonialism, as
Ayittey alleges, but for ONGOING devastation of the continent through
the wanton extraction of the continent's resources by environmentally
nonchalant Western companies, and the resultant destruction of the
environment, livelihoods, lifestyles, not to mention the instigation
and exacerbation of armed conflict and the massive repatriation of
tax-free profits to Western capitals. No amount of aid will
adequately compensate Africans for these Western schemes or restitute
for their immoral aftermaths.

It sounds good to call for a reform of African states and
institutions as a prelude to increased aid and debt relief. Ayittey
wants Africa to cleanse its own house before the West goes further
with these projects. But is this complete cleansing feasible or
possible-not only in Africa but anywhere in the world? Is this
insistence on cleansing as a condition for aid in the interest of the
suffering (and innocent) mass of Africans, some of who depend solely
on foreign aid handouts for survival? Is this not tantamount to
withholding food and medicine from a child until its parents "clean
up their acts" and start being financially responsible?

Finally, Ayittey calls for smart aid, which he argues would bypass
the "vampire state" and deliver help directly the Africans in the
traditional and informal sectors through civil society organs. First,
let me welcome Ayittey to the club of the realists-those who believe
that Africans should not be starved of aid because their governments
are corrupt, and that aid, especially of the non-soft loan variety,
cannot be tied to slow or non-existent political and institutional
reforms. I recall that when the moderator of this forum posted a New
York Times Editorial some months ago calling for the same kind of
aid-aid which sidesteps the corrupt state institutions and deliver
help directly to those who need it, Ayittey was very vehement in his
opposition to it. Since Ayittey himself is cynical and pessimistic
about the prospects for the expansion of liberal reform on the
continent, I wonder how he expects Africa "to clean its own house"
and thus attract increased aid and debt relief."

In his response to the New York Times piece, Ayittey had argued that
bypassing the vampire state with aid was a practical impossibility. I
would like to repeat his own criticism to him as an answer to his
idea of channeling aid through civil society organizations. Since the
African state is quite ubiquitous in terms of power, this will not
work as state officials will resist and/or undermine this usurpation
of what they consider their jurisdictional prerogative. It is
illusory to expect that state bureaucrats will not pounce on or
interfere with the implementation of such a smart aid package.

More importantly, the idea that civil society organization or the
informal sector is corruption-free and could thus serve as an
accountable, efficient, and effective channel for aid distribution
and implementation reveals a mindset that is hopelessly out of touch
with African realities on the ground. My own knowledge, which is
experientially rooted in Nigeria, reveals otherwise. Corruption is
not only rampant in the private and informal sectors of the Nigerian
economy; the civil society organizations that Ayittey venerates are
also very corrupt. In fact, the corruption in the Nigerian NGO and
human rights communities, which no one talks about, is just as
alarming as governmental graft. It is now so bad that human rights
advocacy and NGO affairs have become autonomous domains of business
and money-making where the relationship between donors and recipient
and partner organizations has an unsettling resemblance to that
between so-called Western lenders and financial institutions and
African governments and leaders.

So, what do we do?

Tony Blair's set of proposals, which actually fall short of the 100%
debt cancellation (not forgiveness or relief), is a good place to
start. It does not commit the error of simply throwing money at a bad
situation. It marries the concerns of reform and the urgent need to
save and improve lives on the continent. More importantly, it
attempts to redress the anti-Africa trade practices of Western
nations, who in effect have stifled African agricultural and
proto-industrial production through their hypocritical subsidies and
tariffs. My only disappointment with the plan (besides the failure to
recommend the cancellation of all of Africa's debts) is the fact that
it's call for reform is one-sided in that it does not demand the
reform of Western financial institutions and global capital transfer
practices in order to make it impossible for corrupt African leaders
to bilk the continent of aid money, which are then used to finance
and lubricate investments and accounts overseas.