No more African stereotyping that justifies military intervention

by Leonard Wantchekon, NYU Professor of Politics I would like to thank everyone for their comments on my previous post, Africans already got the idea: “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.” This is very helpful and healthy.

How many countries that can be considered to be at war, in Africa? The two clear cut cases are Somalia, and Sudan. But you can add Chad and to some extent Congo. That is 4 out of 54 countries in Africa. That is 7 percent of Africa. You can throw in Nigeria or Kenya because of electoral violence. But would we call India a country at war?

It is important to have an accurate picture of conflict in Africa for at least three reasons.

First, policy response would radically differ if we think 20 percent of countries are at war or if it is only 7 percent. In one case, it might be useful to have a neutral rapid intervention force or a trusteeship of failed states. In the other case, all is needed might be technical assistance to courts, and police forces that can be handled locally.

Second, if we want to promote investment and tourism in Africa, it is really counter-productive to exaggerate the security situation. We also need to report progress, which has been significant in the past 10 years.

Third, we really need to underline the fact that political conflicts in Africa are increasingly peaceful despite economic hardship and the sometimes brutal repression as in Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai should be praised to not have responded to Mugabe’s violence by street violence. Zimbabwean opposition has shown incredible restraint and maturity in their struggle to establish democratic institutions in their country.

Regarding the strong man syndrome, I am not saying that it has have disappeared. Instead, I am saying that things are moving in the right direction. First, a majority of people reject it and second, the new “strong men” are nowhere near the “old” ones in terms of their autocratic style of government. Wade or Museveni are not, and can not possibly be, Mobutu or Eyadema. In addition, why call Obasanjo a strong man, even if he tried and failed to extend his term in office? But I entirely agree with Jeff Barnes when he says we now need to investigate “how do we translate this stated desire for strong institutions over strong men into reality”?

The development challenges in Africa are enormous. But we need to use serious empirical evidence to identify what the real problems are and to acknowledge progress. We need to be careful not to perpetuate this idea that it is “all the same everywhere and all the time in Africa.”