With astute political observations, a big picture vision and his traditional story-telling skills, Raila Odinga this week captivated the Princeton University community with a lecture entitled The Awakening African Lion: the Continent’s Transformations and Challenges. He also spoke at two closed-door events, and by the end of the day, renowned professors, graduate students and Kenyans living in the area got a new sense of Africa’s place in the world.
Mr Odinga did talk about Kenya but generally refrained from criticising the government. He, instead, told his audiences that Africa had made transformative leaps forward which had made it a key global player economically after decades of being a marginalised continent riddled with man-made and natural disasters.
As such, in the last quarter of the 20th century, Africa had been pleading with international financial institutions and other donors for assistance. That approach got it nowhere, he said, with the World Bank and IMF tying many conditions to aid.
The current success was essentially a result of the newly emerged democratising and popular forces, which imbued Africans with new energy as well as the demand for commodities in booming Asian economies and China’s forceful engagement in the building of African infrastructure, which Mr Odinga said was a prerequisite for growth.
The result was that six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing countries are African, and the continent is a leading investment destination, with big powers competing fiercely for its natural resources. Africa’s rising oil production is also set to make it a major source of energy imports for the United States.
At the same time, the continent has made major inroads in health and education, with malaria deaths declining by 30 per cent, HIV infections slashed by up to 74 per cent and student enrolments soaring. Mr Odinga said China was able to become the world’s low-cost factory as it had in earlier decades trained its people in skills to meet the world’s needs.
Citing one of the sayings he is renowned for, Mr Odinga said his people have a saying that as long as the lion cannot speak, its hunters will be the ones who tell the story of the hunt. Similarly, he said until Africa tells its own story and articulates its vision meaningfully, BBC and CNN will define Africa’s image and set the international agenda for how Africa should be engaged.
The two Princeton professors who organised the events, Jennifer Widner of the Woodrow Wilson School, and Daniel Rubinstein, director of the Africa programme, kept the discussions lively with incisive remarks based on their expertise on Africa.
One of the most important effects of the continent’s resurgence was the confidence it had generated among Africans, the absence of which in previous decades had prevented initiatives it is now taking so successfully, Mr Odinga said.
He also pointed out that one of the reasons for Africa’s current dynamism was China’s strategic engagement with it in search of the resources it needs for its powerful economy.
“Forget those who are saying China is colonising Africa,” he asserted. “It is advancing its own interests, but Africa is benefiting as well. China is filling a vacuum which could have been filled by others earlier. No one is stopping the others from coming to Africa and doing what China is doing. The World Bank took up to a decade to approve vital infrastructure projects, and Western donors had given up on infrastructure financing altogether. China has filled this crucial gap, and its cheap technology has also done wonders for African farmers and small scale entrepreneurs like boda boda operators.”
But Mr Odinga did not merely accentuate the positives. He highlighted key challenges, which must be addressed soon least they come to haunt the continent. Chief among these were the deepening poverty of many even as growing elites and middle classes were amassing wealth, and the scourge of corruption.
The ethnicisation of politics had also deepened despite lessons from Rwanda. Strides in infrastructure cannot minimise the reality that there is very little inter-African trade.
While Kenya’s massive Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) project, he said, will eventually link the Indian and Atlantic Oceans via Ethiopia, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Cameroon, giving a huge boost to African trade, the commodity boom will not last forever, and so we could quickly slide back to poverty unless our economies are restructured and diversified while we have our current high incomes. That’s what the oil-rich Gulf countries have done.
Mr Odinga, too, praised people’s revolutionary drives to end single-party dictatorships and military rule and introduce democratic reforms, pointing out that in 1990 there were only three countries considered democratic but the number now was 25. However, he sees a worrying trend towards a return to autocratic rule, where even relatively fair elections do not translate into good governance.
In that context, and in response to a question, he said it was extremely hypocritical for African leaders to condemn the ICC with accusations that it targets African countries, observing that every suspect at The Hague had been sent there by an African government.
The presidents of the DRC, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria, for example, had sent suspects to the Hague, while Uganda had sought FBI assistance to dispatch Joseph Kony to the tribunal.
Mr Odinga said he believes in Kenya’s and Africa’s capacity to achieve greatness, but warned that one of the continent’s prime assets, its youth, could turn into a curse if poverty gap is not addressed.
By Mr Lone a former UN official who served as Mr Odinga’s spokesman. He now resides in Princeton.