Why Africa is angry

WTO - Africa's verdict: Some are convinced that the Gleneagles summit actually fuelled misgovernment

Gakuru Macharia, editor of the East African Magazine, recently got a nasty shock. An enthusiastic supporter of Tony Blair's African initiative, he toured Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania last month looking for signs of how agreements reached at Gleneagles were being followed up on the ground.

"It was terribly disappointing," he says. "Every country I visited, no one seemed to know Africa had been top of the agenda at Gleneagles. Even the British Council and British embassy in Dar es Salaam seemed barely aware. They didn't even have any copies of the Commission for Africa report."

Five months on, ask an African - even a member of the urban elite - about the impact of the commission and Gleneagles and, as often as not, you'll meet a baffled silence. "Even at the time of the summit, there wasn't much comment here," says Salim Lone, a former spokesman for the UN now based in Kenya. "Since then, no one mentions Gleneagles at all."

While the Make Poverty History campaign, Live 8 and the summit itself raised public awareness of the continent's problems to unprecedented levels in Britain, it is striking how quickly the effect evaporates once you cross UK borders. In the United States and Canada, it was virtually a 48-hour phenomenon, streaking across the sky of public consciousness "like a comet", as one Montreal-based development expert told me.

Maybe that's only natural: Africa is a long way away. More puzzling is the fact that, on the very continent being championed by pop stars and charities, embraced by marchers and tearful concert-goers, the event passed with only a flicker of interest. Its follow-up has been of even less concern. Some attribute the curiously one-sided nature of the "Year of Africa" to a failure by organisers at the commission, viewed by cynics as Blair's attempt to recuperate ethical ground lost over the Iraq war, to do the necessary legwork and build on existing African initiatives such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad).

"It was done very hastily and superficially," says Ken Wiwa, son of the late Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. "If you want to connect with ordinary Africans you can't go down the press-release route. It takes hard work, more than eight months, and Tony Blair just isn't going to be around that long."

Others believe Africa's lack of interest in its own special event exposes a more fundamental problem, the fatal flaw at the heart of the G8 formula for recovery. With its promises of boosted aid, sweeping debt relief and - depending on the Hong Kong talks - fairer trade terms, the formula is premised on a reliable partner in the shape of reform-minded, accountable African leaderships.

The Commission for Africa was confident that that leadership was emerging. For many analysts, however, the premise doesn't bear scrutiny, and the fallacy explains the failure of African citizens to get excited by the international debate over the continent's future. From this viewpoint, African indifference is prompted not by laziness but disgust at a bevy of administrations regarded domestically as corrupt, brutal and unrepresentative.

"What people find difficult to comprehend is the spectacle of leaders they distrust in respectable dialogue with the international community," says the Nigerian political scientist Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe. "These individuals are not seen as credible at home. So when they fly off to these meetings Africans shrug it off as a holiday, a shopping spree."

Wiwa makes the same point. "The west wanted a buy-in from African leadership. But if the leadership is the problem, what do you do? In Africa, governments don't express the sovereign will of the people, and if you invite a politician to sit on a commission you're just giving him the international approval he craves."

Events since Gleneagles have certainly conspired to push the issue centre-stage. What shreds remained of belief in the notion that a generation of "Renaissance" leaders had emerged in the wake of the cold war have been stripped away, with figures once regarded as "men we can do business with" coming to bear an ever more startling resemblance to the autocrats they ousted.

In Uganda Yoweri Museveni, who has changed the constitution to allow himself another term, arrested his main opponent, who now faces a court martial on terrorism charges. In Kenya, an administration that came to power on an anti-corruption platform continues to raid the public purse with gusto. In Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa has presided over violent and questionable elections on the island of Zanzibar for the third time running, while in Nigeria there are growing signs that President Olusegun Obasanjo intends to tinker with the constitution to stand again.

The biggest disappointment has been in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, once honoured with a seat on the Commission for Africa, has rigged the polls and arrested opposition leaders, and ordered a post-election crackdown in which scores died and at least 10,000 were detained. Under the G8 deal, Ethiopia was due to have its foreign debt scrapped. With the democratic process stalled and a new war against Eritrea looking increasingly likely, donors are now discussing suspending aid. It is unclear what the implications for debt relief will be.

The Commission for Africa stressed that, for aid to work, it needed to be sustained and long-term, with conditionalities reduced to a minimum. The return to the old carrot-and-stick approach in Ethiopia, so soon after the G8 summit, suggests that what makes sense on paper becomes a nonsense when applied to a continent whose leaders still place personal survival ahead of their countries' needs.

Some are convinced the G8 summit has actually fuelled misgovernment, with the cash that donors assumed would be freed up for health and education being directed to political ends. "Since the Ugandan government learned its debt was forgiven, it is seeking to massively increase spending on political appointments," says Andrew Mwenda, political editor of the Kampala-based Daily Monitor. "The money will be spent on patronage, not schools. So Blair has made things worse, not better. He's telling our governments, 'Borrow and spend as you please. There will be no reckoning.'"

For Robert Calderisi, the former World Bank spokesman for Africa, recent events show that Gleneagles embraced the wrong solutions. "I'm ever more convinced that more aid and less debt are irrelevant when compared to the forces currently at work in Africa. There's a lack of leadership and a contempt for the public at the top that needs to change."

Calderisi, who challenges aid shibboleths in a book soon to be published, argues that although the past five months have shed a shocking light on Africa's top echelons, developments lower down give huge cause for hope. In Uganda there were riots over the arrest of the opposition leader Kizza Besigye, in Kenya voters rejected a constitution shoring up presidential powers, in Liberia the people chose a seasoned female candidate over a glamorous soccer star, and in Ethiopia voters went on to the streets to protest fiddled election results.

"Africans are putting their foot down," says Calderisi. "They are getting angry instead of giving in to the usual fatalism. What happened in Ethiopia was the equivalent of the Soweto uprising. The grass roots are beginning to stir." Forget the intellectual debate over the merits of the Year of Africa. It is in this form of grass-roots action that Africa's future lies.

This article appears in the 12 December 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We achieved next to nothing