Cautious Optimism: A Realistic Approach to African Development

Copyright World Economic Forum/Photo by Aly Ramji/Mediapix

  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

Yale Journal of International Affairs: You are here at Yale to deliver the Coca-Cola World Fund Lecture entitled “Afro-Optimism, Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far?” Could you describe for us what you mean by the pendulum swinging too far, and is it necessarily a negative thing to be optimistic about Africa?

Raila Odinga: This is an interesting subject. African experts are divided between those who call themselves Afro-pessimist and Afro-optimists. There was a time when there was a lot of pessimism about Africa—it was a “hopeless case”, a “basket case”. There was really no need to waste time on Africa; people were just going there to sympathize. On the other hand, the optimists are those who believe in the ability of Africa to develop—Africans can develop Africa. There has been a divide between these two views. Optimists now believe they are right, that this really is Africa’s time. The 21st century is going to be “Africa’s Century.” Even those who were pessimistic yesterday, are being convinced that here is something happening. So the question is, how far has Africa gone? Are we celebrating too early? That is the reason why we are asking, “has the pendulum swung to far?”

YJIA: In the 50s and 60s, many people were talking about “Africa emerging.” Today they are talking about “Africa rising”, but the language and rhetoric seems to be the same. So what is different this time, and are we simply going to be saying the same things in 30 or 40 years time?

Odinga: Looking at Africa’s history, first we have the independence years—when Africa divided from colonial rule. There were a lot of expectations from the moment the colonial flags went down and were replaced by the new independent flags of each country. There was an aura of celebration. It was short-lived however, and there followed a period of stagnation. A period of military coups and single-party dictatorships, these characterized politics in most of the 70s, 80s, and 90s—you could say up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the “winds of change” started to blow in Eastern Europe, this wind also began to blow on the African continent. So that is when the new changes came. First, the military regimes where removed or overthrown by popular uprising, and the same thing happened to the single party dictatorships. As we say, multiparty rule became in vogue during most of the 90s and into the year 2000. The change during this period was seen in term of development. Most economies—which had been more or less dependent on aid and had registered negative growth—began to register substantial growth. In the past decade, the African continent has become the fastest growing part of the world. You can see now that: out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, seven are African. And a number of those countries are registering double digits in growth. Africa is the “last frontier” of human development. That is the difference. If you look at the independence period, there was a lot of optimism but this led to a period of stagnation and dictatorship. So we can say now that this the second liberation.

YJIA: Regarding development, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on what is now a very fashionable question—that of China’s involvement on the continent. Do you think that African governments are doing enough to ensure that this relationship is not one of exploitation? After the Chinese leave, will Africa be able to maintain the infrastructure that has been left?

Odinga: Whenever China is mentioned, I always say China is the elephant in the room. It evokes different feelings in different people’s minds. Sometimes fear, trepidation of course—over-excitement. I would say that China is in Africa not just to help Africa, but primarily for China’s own strategic interests. This is logical; every country acts for its own strategic, national interests. So China is coming as a friend, but I know that China, of course, is interested in Africa’s raw materials. Now the question has always been: what is Africa getting in return? Is Africa getting value for its goods and products to China? I say that every nation must strike a bargain in dealing with China, especially knowing that China is acting in its own interests. Therefore each and every project must be negotiated to present the most viable commercial terms for Africa. China cannot just come to fill a vacuum—a vacuum that was left there by the West, the traditional partners of Africa for many years. The West pulled away from some of the strategic areas like infrastructure development. China however is helping Africa to construct roads, railways, airports, and so on. In exchange, it is getting Africa’s raw materials which it needs for its own industries. It’s getting the iron ore, copper, bauxite, oil, gas, and so on and so forth. So I would say that first there has to be value addition, and second there has to be technological transfer. This is so that when the Chinese leave ultimately, they don’t just leave this rotting infrastructure on the ground. It must be a sustainable development, so that people are not only able to sustain what has been developed but they can continue that process of development.

YJIA: Let us turn the conversation to Kenya and politics in Kenya in general. You are the leader of the opposition at the moment. What do you see your role is as leader of the opposition in a country like Kenya?

Odinga: As you know, the opposition is a coalition, CORD—“Coalition for Reform and Democracy”—consisting of 3 political parties. We had a pre-election pact to vie for the presidency as a coalition, which we did not win. We then made a post-election pact to create a strong opposition, both in parliament and out of it. In parliament, we have members in both the National Assembly and in the Senate and we have minority leadership in both. We have also got the whip. We ensure that our team in parliament keeps the government on its toes by making contributions to bills and motions and by presenting some legislation ourselves. Outside [parliament], I lead the coalition, and here of course, I ensure that the parties themselves are strong and organized. We ensure that they keep in contact with the membership on the ground and that the policies are being implemented correctly. As you know, we now have a devolved system on the ground. We have 47 counties and 24 of these are governed by the coalition, so we must ensure that these county governments are actually working and implementing the policies of our coalition, and that people are getting the services that were promised to them in our manifesto.

YJIA: With regard to devolution, you are now pushing for a referendum [to change certain aspects of the constitution] in Kenya. How much of this push for the referendum ties in to your role as leader of the opposition?

Odinga: Our main role is to make sure that the coalition is relevant. Secondly, we need to ensure that the government is actually delivering to the people the promises they made during the electoral campaigns. In the process of this a number of weaknesses and challenges have arisen and become apparent with the devolved system of government. One is in terms of constitutional implementation with regard to devolution. In the constitution there was a provision that a system called provincial administration would be restructured to fit into the devolved system of government, because it was part of the unitary system of the past. However, this government has actually refused to restructure it. They have simply renamed it—so for example, at the county level, you have the governor, on the one hand, as well as the county commissioner…so now there is a duplication of each position at each level of administration—it is a recipe for confusion.

The other issue is that of the allocation of resources. The constitution says that a minimum of 15 percent of national revenue shall go to the devolved units. The government, however, is using accounts from five years ago to allocate resources. This means that our governors have actually discovered that they do not have sufficient funds to execute their mandate. For example health care has been widely devolved but there is no money to pay the doctors and nurses, so they are going on strike. A different issue applies for transport, agriculture, water, and rural electrification at the county level. They have devolved and can only just pay the salaries but they cannot do anything else, so they are paying salaries to people who are doing nothing. We need to be more specific and increase allocation of funds for the county government so that it is not left to the generosity of the executive. Education should also be partially devolved and school infrastructure becomes the problem of the county government, and the national government should only deal with paying salaries. So these are some of the changes we intend to introduce.

The other issue is the management of land as a resource. The national government is trying to interfere with this. We want the land commission to be fully empowered in order for them to administer authority over land in the country.

Finally we want the electoral commission to be restructured so that it cannot be manipulated by the national government. We want it reduced in size from nine to five people who are not employed full time. We want to have them appointed by the political parties, and once they are appointed, they themselves will elect the chairman. This will actually assure a fairer electoral commission.

YJIA: Staying with the idea of the referendum, your political party, the Orange Democratic Party, was based on a former referendum in 2005 [the “yes or no” campaign for the constitution]. What would you say to critics who claim that your current push for a referendum is simply a political move?

Odinga: As you know there has been a lot of water under the bridge since 2005. At that time, we opposed the constitution—we said “no” to it, and we won the referendum. In 2010, we then supported the newly drafted constitution, and the “yes” side won. Many people have been saying it is too soon to try to change the current constitution. But this constitution was approved four years ago. This is not a question of time but rather a question of need. I always give the example of the American constitution which was amended within six months. The same goes for the French and even the South African constitution. The question is then, is there a need now? And we think yes, there is. Devolution is one of the main issues of the constitution—outlining the need to decentralize power from the centre to the periphery. We have been running for 50 years after independence, but it is like we have several countries in one. There are parts of Kenya you go to and you think you are in the United States, yet in other parts of Kenya, they will ask you, “how is Kenya?” They do not believe they are a part of Kenya. With devolution, they are beginning to feel that they are.

Let us look at Marsabit County, up in Northern Kenya. It is a remote semi-arid area where the residents there are pastoralists. For the last 50 years, the national government has only drilled 20 boreholes in the area for water for the cattle. In the last year, since devolution, the county government has drilled 20 boreholes—the same amount that the national government had drilled since independence…

…In Wajir County, they have never up to now had a tarmac road. Now, within one year of devolution, they have started construction on a tarmac road, as well as a slaughterhouse and a modern health centre. So we believe the amendment we are trying to introduce will actually empower the county governments, and that is why there is great need for a referendum of the current constitution now.

YJIA: One final question, which we ask all the people we interview for the Journal. Is there a particular global issue, which keeps you up at night?

Odinga: I am very worried about this Islamic State. I think it poses a serious threat to international peace, and I would very much like to see it sorted out. It pains me to see innocent people being paraded publicly and then being beheaded. It is something that actually makes me loose sleep at night—seeing this happening to another human being. It is horrifying, and it makes me question what kind of world are we living in—how are we allowing this to happen? This is something that disturbs my conscience.


  • Comment
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Email
  • Print

4 thoughts on “Cautious Optimism: A Realistic Approach to African Development

  1. davidMasai says:

    Africa case aptly reviewed. We remain optimistic to pull the levers of development forward, in all frontiers.

  2. elton khaemba says:

    a true african and indeed global leader. please continue pushing for reform agenda not only in kenya but africa as a whole.

  3. Elisha Ochieng says:

    I want to thank you Mr Prime Minister or your steadfast commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law. And to congratulate you for the good work in transforming Kenya.

  4. Thomas Ogada says:

    Great ideas from a true pan africanist keep it up and continue championing the rights of Africans.

Tell us your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


In association with the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs