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Another Shambolic Election in Africa

Walter Russell Mead

Congo’s president won (“won”) another seven-year term yesterday, according to the Times:

Denis Sassou Nguesso, 72, was declared the winner yesterday, becoming the latest African leader to extend his time in office after rewriting the constitution. He won more than 60 per cent of the vote, according to the official count.

The former army general has been in power since 1979 apart from five years after losing elections in 1992. He was able to run again after a referendum in October abolished a two-term limit on presidential mandates and removed an age limit of 70 years.

Critics say his rule in a country rich in oil and timber has been marked by corruption and nepotism. The poll at the weekend was marred by street clashes, and the government banned internet access to prevent the opposition publishing “illegal results”.

More and more African governments are blowing off the earnest lectures from Western diplomats and the elegant lamentations of human rights organizations and going on with the business of looting and pillaging their countries without paying much attention to the formalities of elections that keep the condescending foreigners happy.

Presidents in poorer countries often depend on aid handouts to supplement the meager income their countries generate, but fortunately for Denis Nguesso, Congo (not to be confused with the huge, corrupt and misgoverned Democratic Republic of Congo) has enough mineral and timber wealth that he and his cronies can support themselves by creaming the wealth that the country generates. Other African presidents have to work harder at the hypocrisy, pretending to pay attention to the dreary civics lessons by earnest Scandinavian bureaucrats and optimistic Americans. Nguesso doesn’t need to worry about getting nice write-ups in the Western press as a member of the latest generation of star democrats transforming Africa.

Now there are a lot of countries in Africa, and the news isn’t all bleak. But the NGO world and the foreign aid lobby consistently oversell the progress in public because without optimism about Africa’s prospects, you aren’t going to get aid appropriations through first world legislatures. In the old days, the aid lobby could point to the Soviet threat, and during the Cold War that was enough to persuade the U.S. to shell out billions—without asking too many questions about what African leaders were doing with the money. But the Soviets, who themselves lavished billions that, like much of our aid, ended up supporting struggling Swiss bankers more than anyone else, faded away—and all their investment in Africa didn’t extend their hold on the Kremlin by a single hour. Some in the aid world have tried to hype the Chinese threat in Africa to get some geopolitical juice going, but so far, the response is lackluster. Surprisingly few Americans these days are worried about the prospect of Chinese economic imperialism in Zimbabwe.

This is all too bad. There really are problems in Africa that we should be focusing on, though they don’t fit the preferred narratives of the Afrophile establishment. The slide toward religious conflict across northern Africa, the continuing governance implosion in South Africa, and the threat of public health catastrophes with global consequences are things that western governments and in some cases western NGOs really can—and should—do more about. The commodity crash, while discrediting the overhyped ‘African miracle’ narratives that the conventional Afrophiles keep trying to push, has put some countries in an extremely difficult and even dangerous position, with fragile states unable to provide even the most basic services (like security against jihadi attacks). But to get the public support for the serious policies we need—and Africa needs—requires a different and more reality-based journalism and advocacy than the conventional platitudes that too often substitute for real discourse about a part of the world that many westerners still see, if at all, in sentimental terms.

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