For African leaders, accountability is for the West alone

For nearly two months, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari kept mum on when he would announce members of his cabinet. Neither the harsh words of his critics nor the heartfelt pleas of his fans got him to say something, until he traveled to the United States of America to meet with President Obama. Once there, the president of Nigeria did not hesitate to tell the Americans, through an Op-ed in their Washington Post, when he would name his ministers. He went further to justify his delay by citing that of his American counterpart, as if he was bound to copy from a script.

President Buhari also spent ample time in a video chat with CNN show host Christiane Amanpour, answering questions in ways he is yet to do with any Nigerian journalist. The new president has said more through the foreign press than the local media. Apart from his victory address and inauguration speech, his two most notable public statements prior this were made in the UK, at the Chatham house, and in another video chat with the same Amanpour. His predecessor, former President Goodluck Jonathan was no different in this regard. He also offered himself more to the western media, and also penned an op-ed in the Washington Post. Neither Jonathan nor Buhari have ever published an op-ed in any of Nigeria’s over a dozen national newspapers.

For the past few weeks Kenya has been abuzz with the expectation of their son–America’s Obama. Eager to impress the US and her President, the government has raised its security alertness to a point that some now consider suffocating. 10,000 police officers, about 25 percent of the country’s entire police force, have been deployed to Nairobi–the country’s capital. Yesterday the government announced that all flights in the country will be suspended from the moment Obama’s Airforce one enters the Kenyan airspace till his motorcade exits the airport. There’s more; it also placed a ban on aircrafts flying below 20,000 feet for the three days that Obama will be in the country. This level of security consciousness sharply contrasts with the lackadaisical response to the al Shabaab attack in Garissa that left over 140 students dead.

The Obama visit has also made Kenya’s President Kenyatta more local media friendly. Last friday he, accompanied by his vice President Willam Ruto and select members of his cabinet, addressed the Kenyan people on live TV about the agenda for Obama’s visit. The event was special for the Kenyan media mainly because Kenyatta hardly ever talks to them. “President Uhuru Kenyatta has never concealed his dim view of the local media, Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation wrote last year… Mr Kenyatta rarely granted interviews to local journalists, preferring to demonstrate his deep sense of patriotism by talking to BBC and other international media…” The paper also said Kenyatta’s vice William Ruto “has himself dished it out in his characteristic Sugoi village-boy style, once sharply dismissing the newspapers as only good enough for kufunga nyama (wrapping meat).”

The Ethiopian government is also preparing for their own share of Obama. Earlier this month it unexpectedly released several journalists and bloggers whom it had held for terrorism charges that many believe is trumped up. Many believe the decision to release the government critics was to appease the American president as he visits at the end of the month for the AU summit in Addis Ababa.“They [the Ethiopian government] want to avoid some difficult questions that would have been asked by Obama during his time in Addis Ababa,” Tom Rhodes, east Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists said. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government doesn’t even try to avoid difficult questions from the local media, it quashes them. Wholly dominated by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the government is among the most repressive in the world, an attitude that casts a shadow over its impressive showing in enabling the country’s rapid economic growth and development.

The above mentioned African governments are only a few of the many in the continent that offer more accountability to the west than their people. There are three factors that best explain this. The first is obviously the effect of western colonialism during which formerly independent African kingdoms became primarily answerable to the western powers at the disregard of their people. Where there were no kings, like in most parts of South-Eastern Nigeria, Warrant Chiefs were created to lord over the people and collect taxes, not to represent their wishes.

An offshoot of the first is the illegitimacy of the rule of most current African leaders, many of whom are, and remain, in power due to the direct or indirect assistance from the West. Many French-speaking African countries are examples of this.  France has been criticised for helping African despots remain in power as long as they favour french interests.

The third factor is aid. Given the amount of “free money” that they can get from the West, many African leaders show their indebtedness to the moneybags in North America and Europe by sending their report cards abroad rather than to their citizens at home.

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