World towers above Africa not due to lack, but poor leadership

President William Ruto and US President Joe Biden addressing journalists at White House. [AFP]

The spectacular drama that often attends visits to the Global North by African leaders reminds us of our refusal to be great.

In 2010, Greg Mills of South Africa published a powerful book titled Why Africa is Poor and What Africans Can Do about It. His central thesis is that Africa has chosen poverty.

We are a conscious reversal of civilisation, an edifice of negations, a pool of absurdity. Our leaders want it that way. They love smallness, and even being made to feel small. They are Jonathan Swift’s willing Lilliputians in the global theatre of greatness. Hence, in a figurative sense, a wake up photo in the media this week has reminded us how the world towers above tiny Africa, even at her most gigantic.

Retired US basketball player Shaquille O’Neal stands, literally, head and shoulders above our President William Ruto, during his state visit to the States. The discomfort of the moment is conveyed in semiosis. The African notable is befuddled by the humdrum American giant. What is the wider import of this awkward photo opportunity?

We will soon know whether beyond touristic thrill there is anything more significant in this moment. Meanwhile, the world continues to tower above Africa like the Man Mountain in the picture, because we choose to be inferior.

Even when red carpets are rolled out, and we dine in exclusive American inner courts, we savour the pleasures with the wonderment of underlings. We have failed to make our nations great. Hence, both the African sovereign and the ordinary yahoo are mesmerised by the thought of being in magical America. They are overwhelmed by mingling with American socialites and photo opportunities. They yearn for America.

This reality should disturb Kenya and Africa, especially on the brink of Kenya’s 60th anniversary of Internal Self-Government. Madaraka in June 1963 was the mother of independence. It meant that our destiny was now in our own hands. We were in the driver’s seat. We would define our desired directions and destinations. Yet, have we been more famed for the doom from our designs and devices? 

Greg Mills reminds us that the world has not denied us its markets. Nor does the continent lack the intellectual and technical skills to make it great. It is simply a question of poor and failed political leadership. Our leaders are adept at confounding choices, even as the state visit to the United States demonstrates. Kenyans have vented on social media about the wisdom of the hired business jet that took our people to the States. And clearly there are numerous other costs that could be in excess of the jet fees.

We should be living within our means. The wisdom behind this exceedingly lavish choice of travel is hard to tell. But such are the choices that make Africa poor. The political office is a place of luxury at the expense of public coffers. In the world that dwarfs us, high office is about public service and accountability. In Africa it is about grandiose self-aggrandisement and enrichment at public expense. Chaps who until the other day could not pay for a decent cup of tea become sudden self-mystifying and publicity-seeking billionaires. We are a rich continent, endowed with natural resources and human capacity. Certainly Kenya is rich. We have some of the best brains in the world. We are rich in natural resources. But we do not tap the brains.

We place quasi-literate-to-illiterate wheeler-dealers in strategic positions, mainly because they are both from our tribes and politically correct. The objective is not productivity. It is looting.

President Ruto’s beaming face as a guest of the Americans leaves you holding your head in your hands, in grief. It speaks to the loss of the spirit of Madaraka; that passionate fire that drove Africa to independence. The founders’ dream of a dignified self-governing, and self-reliant nation has been betrayed by bad choices. 

We, therefore, arrive in Western capitals holding hands with our fate, parading our entire dental formula to the world, glad for the privilege of being hosted here. We speak of the gain of recognition by the master, and of the attendant tokenism of opportunities.

In exchange, the master determines who else is allowed to be our foreign friend. He stage manages our international circuit. He defines for us our tax regime and official financial behaviour. 

Yet, we cannot entirely blame Big Brother. It is our foolish choices. And yes, we the hustlers are responsible for the original foolish sin. We kiss the proverbial wrong frogs that croak all the way to foreign banks (pun intended).

Yet we must never give up. Someday we will kiss the right frog. It will transform into our knight in golden armour. We must keep kissing.