To George Ayittey, "Africa's Shady Politicians Are at Root of Continent's Destitution."

Africa's potential is enormous, yet it is inexorably mired in steaming squalor, misery, deprivation, and chaos. Four out of 10 Africans live in absolute poverty and recent evidence suggests that poverty is on the increase. Most Africans today are worse off than they were at independence.

Why is Africa in this state? "Externalists" ascribe Africa's woes to factors beyond its control: Western colonialism and imperialism, the slave trade, racist plots, avaricious multinationals, an unjust international economic system, inadequate flows of foreign aid and deteriorating terms of trade.

"Internalists" blame local systems of governance: excessive state intervention and corruption at all levels, from the police and judiciary to the highest branches of government.

Since independence in the 1960s, African leaders, with few exceptions, have attributed almost every malaise to external agents. But a new and angry generation of Africans has emerged.

As Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe says: "There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which are the hallmarks of true leadership."

Many African countries are "vampire" states, their governments hijacked by gangsters who use the instruments of the state to enrich themselves and their cronies. In Africa, the richest people are heads of state and ministers.

 They destroy wealth: rather than encourage investment, they encourage activities designed only to capture some of the President's largesse. The instinct of the ruling elite is to loot the national treasury and invest the booty in foreign banks.

The UN has estimated that in 1991 alone, more than $200 billion was siphoned out of Africa by the ruling elite, more than half the continent's foreign debt.

Since politics is the gateway to fabulous wealth, the competition for power is ferocious. Defeat can mean exile, jail or starvation. Those who win power award key positions to fellow tribesmen, cronies and supporters. Those exploited remove themselves from the formal economy, either leaving the country or turning to the black market.

 This deprives the state of tax revenue and foreign exchange. The formal economy shrinks and the state finds it increasingly difficult to raise revenue. Then those excluded from the spoils rise up. It takes only a small band of determined malcontents to plunge the country into mayhem.

In 1981, Yoweri Museveni, now the President of Uganda, started with only 27 men in a guerrilla campaign against Milton Obote. Charles Taylor, now the President of Liberia, set out with 150 rebels; no post-colonial African government has been able to crush a rebel insurgency.

In destroying their economies, African tyrants received much help from the West - out of sheer naivety. Since the end of colonialism, Western governments, development agencies and international financial institutions have provided generous assistance.

According to the OECD, the net disbursement of official development assistance, adjusted for inflation, between 1960 and 1997 was roughly $400 billion, equivalent to almost six Marshall Plans.

Somalia is probably the most execrable example. Huge amounts of economic and disaster relief aid was dumped there, but it was the massive inflow of food aid in the early 1980s that did much to shred the fabric of Somali society.

Droughts and famines are not new to Africa, and traditional societies developed methods of coping. Cheap food aid destroyed these methods and Somalia became dependent on food imports.

Africa's crises have little to do with artificial colonial borders, American imperialism, racism or the alleged inferiority of the African people. They stem from bad leadership and the enabling role played by the West. The centralisation of power and absence of mechanisms for its peaceful transfer lead to a struggle which degenerates into civil war.

Infrastructure is destroyed. Food production and delivery are disrupted. Thousands are dislocated and flee. Food supplies run out. The Western media bombards us with horrific pictures of famine victims. Unable to bear the horror, the conscience of the international community is stirred to mount 11th-hour humanitarian rescue missions.

Foreign relief workers parachute in dispensing high-protein biscuits, blankets and portable toilets at hastily-erected refugee camps. The same macabre ritual is repeated year after year.
It seems nothing has been learned. The real tragedy of Africa is that most of its leaders don't use their heads. Even more tragic are the Western donors who, gushing with noble humanitarianism, don't use theirs either.