A recent event held in the UK Parliament, discussing which economic and political model Africa should follow – the Washington or the Beijing Consensus – decided that the best model was the one that delivered the most impressive results for Africa.
What was different about the discussions, however, was the sense that the Africans present were no longer automatically accepting the Washington model as the only game in town or indeed the one that delivered the most impressive results. The impact of the Wall Street-induced global recession that continues to ravage the Western economies has eroded confidence in the liberal free market model. Beyond economics the questioning is now also openly moving towards Western democratic politics.
As President Barack Obama begins his second term in office, the world is actively reflecting on the November 2012 process of electing/selecting leaders in the US and China. And watching carefully which of the systems will, in 10 years time, have best delivered the economic goods, while guaranteeing social peace.
In the US we saw a raucous 18-month presidential electoral campaign, which consumed over $2bn and just under $6bn if you include the Congressional campaigns. Despite the vast amounts of money, the Republican primary process threw up a number of poor candidates. Their identification of the issues was sometimes bizarre, as were the solutions they put forward to resolve the serious problems facing the US such as the recession, debt, and unemployment.
In fact, it appears the more money the process generated, the poorer the quality of candidates that emerged. The candidates twisted their politics to fit in with the rich and powerful lobbies, such as the gun lobby, whose monies decide elections. The rich fund the representatives in order to purchase, as journalist Greg Palast would say, “the best democracy money can buy”.
After all the money, we ended with a Democratic president and Senate and a Republican House of Reps – which means the political deadlock of the last two years continues when bold decisions are needed to tackle ongoing problems. However, the US process does benefit from being transparent and involves mass participation which legitimises it.
Meanwhile in China, the technocratic Xi Jinping emerged effortlessly, from within the Communist Party, to lead for the next 10 years. The normally smooth and inexpensive Chinese leadership transition was more dramatic than usual, given the murder and corruption scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, a former favourite. However, a succession plan which relies on grooming future leaders by having them first run provinces the size of major European countries, meant that the party had alternative options.
Which of these leadership models will deliver better economic dividends in 10 years time and which will Africans increasingly favour? Africa is at an important moment in the strategic choices it will make between East and West. Perhaps it will decide those choices based not on economic or political models but the attitude and policies of East and West towards Africa. With the West there has been a long, intimate and also bitter relationship. Our kith and kin live in Western countries and are structurally embedded within them – heck, a person of African heritage can even emerge like Obama, to run the most powerful of the Western countries. Despite this intertwining of destinies, there is a continuing legacy of exploitation, racism and an annoying paternalism which prevents the development of a genuine partnership. Obama’s current African policy of militarisation processed through AFRICOM continues this trend.
The Chinese, without the historical baggage of slavery and colonialism in Africa, or the levels of structural intimacy with Africans, better understand these African sensitivities, themselves having also been colonised. They have carefully built their relationship with Africa on this foundation and on their ability to trade, invest, rather than deal with Africa only as an economic, governance or security problem.
Obama and the West should fight for an African legacy. But it shouldn’t be through the prism of security and military, but incorporate a positive vision of partnership.