The Elimination of Poverty

This week the UN celebrated its annual “Day for the Eradication of Poverty”. No doubt they held a lavish reception in New York and that Diplomats and others, whose business is poverty, attended. I can recall attending a UN meeting in Geneva in the late 80’s and watching the arrival of country representatives for the meeting. What struck me then was that the Chinese delegation arrived by public bus – including the Ambassador.

This week the Norwegians honored Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank for his work in the micro lending industry. I was pleased about this, as the alternative nominations were pretty desperate! This week also saw two new reports out – one from the Nigerian Commission dealing with corruption and the other dealing with the fact that some 10 million people have died in the Congo since 1996.

The Nigerian report was astonishing – they claimed that previous Presidents had stolen over US$500 billion during their tenure. That is many times the total value of the Marshal Plan for the recovery of Europe and probably exceeds the total foreign aid to Africa over this period. In 40 years of Independence the income per capita of the average Nigerian has remained the same – about US$250 per annum.

Here in Zimbabwe over the past decade we have seen incomes slashed by two thirds, the buying power of our currency knocked down to 1,6 million to one US dollar from the level of over US$1 to Z$1,70 at Independence in 1980. We have seen the savings of 100 years of hard work and enterprise simply swept away by a flood tide of mismanagement and corruption. Zimbabweans are now poorer than at any time in the past half-century.

How does the President of Nigeria steal more than a billion US dollars a month? What happens to all that money? What was the role of major companies and international Banks – these are the supplementary questions that should be asked. Mabuto of Congo fame was reputed to have accumulated a personal fortune greater than the national debt of his country. When he died, a paltry US$350 million was found and the family claimed they needed that to live on! Where is the rest of his fortune – in banks in tax havens across the world?

In Angola, now supplying a significant part of the oil needs of the United States, the leadership simply siphons off into overseas bank accounts a percentage of all sales. Even on what is left, the Angolan economy will expand this year by nearly 30 per cent and this shows the inherent wealth of many African countries – Nigeria as perhaps the most extreme example.

Its fabled riches have always fueled the conflict in the Congo. You name a resource – they have it. When finally regional leaders decided to take action against Mabuto they found the regime so rotten it simply collapsed. Behind the invaders came all the vultures and the presence of some 12 to 15 thousand Zimbabwean troops plus air and ground support to create the conditions under which the Congolese could again be looted and raped. Since that conflict began an estimated 10 million people have lost their lives.

The number of deaths gives one cause to pause, but those that remained alive are condemned to lives of abject poverty. They cannot afford a balanced diet, adequate shelter and certainly not health care or education. They must scramble not only to stay alive but also to earn a pittance without dignity – often at the mercy of greedy leaders and army officers or rapine businesspersons.

This state of affairs is by no means Africa wide – countries like Botswana have increased the average incomes of their people 10 fold in the past quarter century. Ghana, which in 1983 was a complete basket case after decades of misrule, is now seeing incomes rising on an annual basis. Take Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa out of the SADC region and the countries that are left will grow this year at an average rate that will rival the growth rates being achieved in the Far East.

What concerns me is of course, the situation in Zimbabwe. We are a rich country from a resource point of view – unlike many other African countries; we also had a highly diversified economy. 90 per cent of what you could buy in a supermarket was produced locally. We were food self sufficient and major exporters of a variety of products. Some of our manufacturers were world class and able to export into developed countries like the USA and Europe.

The collapse of the economy here is not due to conflict – we have not seen a shot fired by a man in uniform since Independence except during Gukurahundi and in the food riots in the late 90’s. It is not due to sanctions – Rhodesia operated under the toughest mandatory sanctions regime ever imposed by the United Nations for 15 years and still came out of that experience with a stronger currency than the US dollar or the pound sterling.

It is a self-imposed crisis and finds it roots in bad policies, corrupt management and government and politically driven patronage. Mugabe is not a Mabuto – but still has had a disastrous impact on the country he has governed for 26 years. Because of systematic and recorded violations of human rights, he and his senior cohorts feel they are unable to relinquish power at any price because they might thereafter be exposed to international legal action like Charles Taylor from West Africa. So in addition to systematically looting and destroying a once vibrant economy, they have now totally subverted the democratic system to the point where they can decide who wins what seats and by how much.

Denied the right to change the countries management through elections and unwilling to take up arms again after the terrible experiences of the past, Zimbabweans of all walks of life, live lives of quiet despair. The only option open to them is flight – legal or otherwise to another country.

When other African leaders simply refuse to face the reality of the character and delinquency of leadership in countries like Zimbabwe and in fact go out of their way to defend and protect them, they are doing a grave disservice to the people of Africa as a whole and to the people of the affected countries. Until we learn to respect fundamental rights and principles and to insist that others do the same – Africa will continue to be the global caricature of failure that it is and its people will continue to slide into deeper poverty and depravation. No amount of aid is going to change that - only deliberate and specific action by African leaders against those of their compatriots whose actions do such disservice to the rest of us.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 21st October 2006