Imagine hearing “Pan-Africanist.” What comes to mind? For many of us, the term conjures up images of activists including Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela and Jomo Kenyatta. These iconic figures were the torchbearers of the erstwhile pan-African movement. There is a school of thought that their death was a death to the pan-African movement. Well, that worldview has, in recent times, received a shot in the arm. This is because there is a re-birth of the pan-African movement. Its leader is the self-proclaimed Afro-Optimist Dr. Patrick Loch Otieno Lumumba (better known as P.L.O.) Last semester, I had the unique honor of moderating a panel discussion with him at the Harvard University Law School. It was on the theme, “The State of African Politics.” Please allow me to share my reflections with you.
I came to the discussion with the view to understanding the impact of politics on Africa’s development. Having followed the eloquent professor for many years, I had been yearning for a chance to meet him, but there had been a paucity of opportunities to do that. When I found out that his was coming to Harvard, I was delighted that the cards had finally broke in the way they did. Little did I know that I was embarking on a two-hour-long pilgrimage to uncovering starker underpinnings of abject poverty, corruption and other social malaises that have become synonymous with the African continent. I was exposed to the struggles of the leaders who perpetuate, with a melancholic reaction sometimes, these atrocities against their fellow Africans. I felt the weight of the burdens of the continent. I felt compassion for the millions who suffer the brunt of ineffective policies. I was troubled by the apocalyptic and bleak future, brought in its wake by climate change and a burgeoning youth population. But I was also encouraged by hopes of a better future.
When I reflect on the story of our lives growing up in Ghana, I slowly come to the realization that they paint a gory picture of the health, education, infrastructural, food security and energy challenges many of the citizens of most African countries face. In a sense, our stories of struggle, in Ghana, are the apotheoses of the struggles of most Africans.
Thinking about these struggles, I am burdened with questions. Questions about the causes of poverty. Questions about the causes of corruption. Questions about the dominant forces that have perpetuated poverty. Throughout the discussion, Dr. Lumumba helped paint a picture of the forces that undergird disequilibria in access to social protection, education, healthcare, etc.
It is no startling revelation that corruption is rampant on the African continent. In addition, I had always harbored the belief that corruption is perpetuated by officials who cream off revenues from the national coffers for selfish reasons. I had mixed feelings when I learned, from our discussions, that a lot of them embezzle money to support the many people who depend on them for social protection. This is because social safety nets do not exist or are inadequate. Essentially, because these officials carry the education, health, and the social welfare burdens of their citizens, they are often under immense pressure. I realized that these officials are not entirely villains; rather, people who sometimes have a heart for their constituents who mean well. This knowledge completely changed my perspectives on corrupt officials. Though the narrative about corruption by African leaders has been trumpeted, time and again by Western media, Dr. Lumumba made me realize the darker realities of the story: that majority of the corruption is perpetuated by multinational corporations under the guise of licit laws.
He also touched on the impact of campaign financing on politics and good governance. I had always been perplexed as to why politicians, in their rights senses, would behave like that. Undergirding all these is the advent of moneyed politics. That makes me ask if Africa needs democracy in its raw form as it is practiced in the West. I used to blame the citizens who take the money of these corrupt officials, without giving equal thought to the fact that they take this money because they are hungry. One cannot underestimate the role played by multinationals and business moguls in solidifying moneyed politics. If I think about the fact that by the time a political party has won elections and comes to power, it has to please these multinationals and business moguls with contracts, I am completely disenchanted with the whole political process.
From the foregoing, the discussion with Dr Lumumba was eye-opening. I learned about the struggles of the continent. I brooded about the forces that deprive Africa of its resources. The giddy realities of African politics. The hardships that politicians face in their attempts at authentic leadership. The dominant forces that make it extremely difficult to end poverty. The plight of the people. Hopes and visions of a brighter future and my picture in it. I also question myself if I am immune to perpetuating similar treatments to my own people. What is the value and purpose of the Harvard education? How can I use it more effectively for the betterment of the lives of the poor? These are all heavy mental burdens I carry. I hope they stay with me and guide my actions no matter what leadership position I find myself in on the African continent in the future.
Mac Sarbah, Graduate Student at Harvard University.
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