Better off without us?

A year on from the G8 and Live 8, parts of Africa are making good progress. But it's not thanks to t

Cameroon's president, Paul Biya, looks at the world upside down. In power for almost a quarter-century and seen by almost no one except his aide-de-camp, Biya regards his country's saintly Catholic cleric Christian Tumi as an opposition leader because of his strong support for human rights. "I was born a Cameroonian," the down-to-earth cardinal told me, "and became a Christian and priest. Why can't I have views about what is happening in my country?" On May Day this year, the international community voted for Biya rather than Tumi by awarding the country $4.9bn in debt relief.

Another winner in the moral sweepstakes has been the small Republic of Congo, run by a man who overthrew an elected government in 1997. The African Union once vowed to shun anyone who took power militarily. Yet, five months ago, the continent's supreme political body chose Congo's Denis Sassou-Nguesso as its chairman. True, he was a compromise candidate, as it was Sudan's turn to take charge and a last-minute sense of decency prevailed. But the AU might as well have installed Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. The world was also kind to Sassou-Nguesso, writing off $2.9bn of Congolese debt in March. To his credit, the World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, tried to block this measure on learning that Sassou-Nguesso had chalked up an $81,000 bill at a New York hotel. He was overruled. The World Bank press release said grudgingly that something would have to give if the money was "not to be hijacked by vested interests".

Such stories show why many Africans are disgusted with their governments, and with the west's well-meaning efforts to help. As many sceptics predicted, progress towards implementing the decisions taken at last year's much-hyped G8 summit - especially doubling aid by 2010 - has been slow.

Africa has made significant strides over the past year, but none of them was a consequence of Gleneagles.

The most important development was probably also the dullest. In February, Nigeria was given a formal credit rating by international bond agencies for the first time. This was due not just to high oil prices, but also to the determination of the finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has reversed decades of economic mismanagement. Nigeria still has a long way to go to gain the full confidence of the international community - and its own people - but good economic housekeeping in the continent's most populous country is good news for all.

Economic growth has been rising, too, giving African governments breathing space, after decades of being choked between burgeoning populations and falling markets. Unfortunately, most of that growth was the result of the oil boom rather than improvements in agriculture, the source of Africa's greatest wealth. Oil has also filled the coffers of some unsavoury regimes (Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea), most of whose leaders have been in office for more than 20 years. The dean of the group, Omar Bongo of Gabon, came to power when Harold Wilson was managing a now-forgotten sterling crisis in 1967.

Over the past year, however, some of Africa's "big men" got their come-uppance - or at least an inkling of their limitations. Liberia's Charles Taylor was arrested on the Nigeria-Cameroon border and taken into custody by the international tribunal in Freetown, which will probe his role in human-rights abuses in Sierra Leone's civil war era. Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, suffered a humiliating defeat in the November referendum on a revised constitution that would have given him more power. The Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, faced street battles over the dubious results of the May 2005 elections. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni settled for 59 per cent of the vote. And in Nigeria, the senate, not western editorial writers, killed President Obasanjo's chances of revising his country's constitution and running for a third term.

Making way

The "big men" also had to make way for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a survivor of many election campaigns and death threats in Liberia, whose main rival for the presidency was an international soccer star. At her inauguration, she instructed incoming ministers to open their bank accounts to public scrutiny - and promised to get the lights to stay on in Monrovia by July this year. Six hundred miles to the east, Benin, the first black African country to change ruling parties democratically in 1991, held its fourth multi-party presidential election in a row.

There was even encouragement on the HIV/Aids front, with the World Health Organisation estimating that 17 per cent of those requiring antiretroviral drugs were actually receiving them. While still woefully short of overall needs, the coverage was higher than anyone could have predicted just a few years ago.

But it is too early to be upbeat about Africa. Like slowing the spread of HIV/Aids, progress in opening up the political debate has barely begun. In 1983, the novelist Chinua Achebe wrote, in a blistering essay called "The Trouble with Nigeria" that still applies to most of Africa: "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."

Africans hoped that foreign aid could be used to make their governments more open and honest. But in many places, the opposite has been true, and in the one big showdown with a dictator this year, it was the west that backed down.

The Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline was meant to be different. It was the largest private sector investment in Africa in a decade when its principal backer, ExxonMobil, invited the World Bank to help design it properly. Central to the effort was a law assigning most of the oil revenues to reducing poverty in Chad. Last December, the country changed the law to include spending on defence. The World Bank promptly shut down its operations in Chad and blocked the overseas account holding the money. This was a sound decision, even though some thought it an overreaction - as if bankers were expected to invite defaulters on mortgages for a friendly drink.

Four months later, the bank backed off when Chad's president, Idriss Déby, threatened to close the pipeline altogether. The geopolitics was understandable: rebels supported by Chad's neighbour, Sudan, had invaded the capital that month, and few people wanted the Déby government overthrown while it was hosting 200,000 refugees from the Darfur region next door. But the political impact and moral consequences were poisonous. Direct military assistance would have been better than allowing the government a free hand with the oil revenues. Like Nigeria's success in improving its public finan ces, this damp squib of a showdown in Chad had continent-wide implications - but, in Chad's case, of a negative kind.

Sticks and carrots

In other places, gangrene lurks just below the surface. On 2 March 2006, Kenya's internal security minister justified a raid on a major Nairobi newspaper and television station that had criticised the government: "When you rattle a snake, you must expect to be bitten." Certainly, the African Union's feeble efforts to corral Mugabe do not point to the "peer justice" promised in the much-heralded New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) that the continent adopted in 2001.

Darfur's people continue to suffer terribly. Although the international community may not have been able to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, it could have done more to halt the carnage in western Sudan. The Rwandan killings lasted a hundred days. Darfur has been going on for three years. Despite the presence of AU troops and a series of truces, the murders, rapes and pillaging continue. Some people question the importance of "yet another" African crisis. But this is no ordinary event. Most civil conflicts in Africa, in places as diverse as Côte d'Ivoire and the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo, have been ended or checked by a combination of international sticks and carrots and the presence of foreign peacekeepers. The horrors of Liberia and Sierra Leone - though not yet Somalia - are a thing of the past. But Darfur is like a seeping sore, reminding us every day that no one has been crueller to Africans in recent decades than Africans themselves.

In the past five years, western countries have taken great steps to protect themselves (in Afghanistan and Iraq), and have stirred up a hornet's nest. Africans may rightly ask how the west can respond so forcefully to the deaths of 3,000 Americans in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001, and yet hesitate to send troops into Sudan after the killing of 180,000 people and the displacement of two million others. US efforts to stem international terrorism in Somalia by supporting local warlords have fallen flat, as the wrong set of villains took Mogadishu this month. International efforts to save the people of Darfur, who face daily terrorism, might have proved more successful.

Which brings us back to foreign aid. As long as dictatorship prevails across much of Africa, the objectives of the G8 leaders at Gleneagles will remain a dead letter.

Countries as canny as Ghana, Mali and Mozambique, which have steadily opened their economies to private investors and their politics to different opinions, do not receive enough aid, while others such as Ethiopia and Cameroon receive far too much. The west must start using more sticks and fewer carrots. And more aid should be targeted at specific Africa-wide causes, such as establishing regional universities and researching new drugs for malaria, rather than just dispersing it over many countries, watering weeds as well as flowers.

A year on from the Live 8 concerts, energies should be aimed at other causes - for instance, barring western arms sales to unrepresentative governments, quarantining any state that imprisons journalists for expressing personal opinions, abolishing laws that make it a crime to criticise African presidents, focusing aid on the few countries that have used it properly, or seizing illicit African holdings in western banks, the way the British navy intercepted slaving ships on the high seas once the abominable trade in human beings was outlawed. Few African leaders would understand that parallel, but most of their citizens would.

Robert Calderisi's "The Trouble With Africa: why foreign aid isn't working" will be published by Yale University Press in July (£18.99)

Since Gleneagles

19 of the world's poorest countries have had their debt cancelled

11 million children have died from conflict and disease (or one child every three seconds)

1 million HIV sufferers now have access to treatment, with the aim to have universal access by 2010

500,000 women have died in pregnancy or childbirth (or one woman every minute)

4,500 teachers can be recruited in Zambia after the relief of national debt from £7bn to £500m

300,000 children are able to go to school in Burundi thanks to the removal of education fees

Research from the Oxfam report "Gleneagles G8: one year later"/Savita Vij

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?