Key Speeches & Articles

Bottlenecks to Development in Africa

By Wangari Maathai
4th UN World Women's Conference, Beijing, China
August 30, 1995

Fellow Participants,

To address myself to the themes and concerns of this 4th UN World Women's Conference, I draw upon my experiences in 2nd and 3rd UN Conferences on Women, my experience at various universities, the National Council of Women of Kenya and several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), especially the Green Belt Movement (GBM).

The privilege of a higher education, especially outside Africa, broadened my original horizon and encouraged me to focus on the environment, women and development in order to improve the quality of life of people in my country in particular and in the African region in general.

The Green Belt Movement is a national, indigenous and grassroots organisation, whose activities are implemented mostly by women. Its mandate is environmental and the main activity is to plant trees and prioritize the felt needs of communities.

The Movement therefore, addresses the issues of woodfuel, both for the rural populations and the urban poor, the need for fencing and building materials, the rampant malnutrition and hunger, the need to protect forests, water catchment areas, open spaces in urban centres and the need to improve the low economic status of women. In the process this leads to activities which help to transfer farming techniques, knowledge and tools to women. Also to enhance leadership capacity of the participants.

The Movement informs and educates participants about the linkages between degradation of the environment and development policies. It encourages women to create jobs, prevent soil loss, slow the processes of desertification, loss of bio-diversity and plant and to eat indigenous foodcrops. The organisation tries to empower women in particular and the civil society in general so that individuals can take action and break the vicious circle of poverty and underdevelopment.

The Movement approaches development from the bottom and moves upwards to reach those who plan and execute the large-scale development models whose benefits hardly ever trickle down to the poor. The Movement has no blue print, preferring to rely on a trial and error approach which adopts what works and quickly drops what does not. It calls upon the creative energies of the ordinary local women, on their expertise, knowledge and capabilities.

It addresses both the symptoms and the causes of environmental degradation at community level, teaches the community members to recognize and differentiate between the causes and symptoms and to discern the linkages between them. It encourages participants to develop expertise in their work and not be limited by their illiteracy or low level of formal education.

The Movement also identifies and subsequently educates citizens about economic and political issues which form important linkages with environmental concerns and which are likely to have a negative impact on the environment. This is done through seminars, workshops and exchange visits. It also addresses the role of the civil society in protecting the environment, developing a democratic culture, pursuing participatory development, promoting accountable and responsible governance, which puts its people first, protecting human rights and encouraging respect for the rule of law.

In the course of this involvement the Movement has identified major bottlenecks which frustrate development efforts in Africa and which are important to this conference. Although we have shared these thoughts with the United Nations World Hearings on Development in New York in June, 1994, and other important fora, we see the need to repeat them at this conference. We feel that unless these bottlenecks, and others, are dealt with it may be difficult to help Africa because these bottlenecks will continue to keep the majority of the African people in the background of their development and political agenda irrespective of the amount of aid, grants and experts sent to Africa to alleviate poverty and underdevelopment.

Perhaps none of the bottlenecks mentioned here are new. The list is also not exhaustive. But it is recommended that these bottlenecks be considered if there be genuine desire to help Africa and her peoples. There is no list of remedies attached to the bottlenecks. The first step is to accept that they are the bottlenecks and identify their source. The last stage is to seek the solutions to them, obviously by removing them and replacing them with cures. The remedies will partly be in form of creative initiatives and actions triggered by the clear understanding of the bottlenecks. These cures would remove these bottlenecks and create an enabling environment to allow the African people utilise their creative energies and national resources.

The following then are some of the bottlenecks which have been identified to date:


Peace and security are a prerequisite for development and all human beings aspire and deserve them. All people also aspire for happiness and a quality of life devoid of poverty and indignity.

Yet for the last three decades many African states have hardly enjoyed internal peace and security. State oppression by dictatorial rulers, especially during the Cold War, precipitated a prevalent culture of fear and silence which gave a semblance of peace in many countries. The outcry of citizens over gross violations of human rights was minimized against the background of civil wars which raged in countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Angola, Mozambique and Liberia. Oppressive governments elsewhere in Africa were portrayed as benign and progressive and their countries were projected as secure, peaceful and prosperous islands even as their dissenting citizens were silenced in detentions, police cells and torture chambers. The Cold War was used by the superpowers and their allies to justify the tolerance of political and economic oppression and violation of the rights of citizens who dissented.

But those were the days of the Cold War and misinformation and misrepresentation of Africa was part of the War. This misrepresentation gave an excuse to those who imported arms and land mines which have been used to destroy millions of lives in Africa. The carnage goes on in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia and in the streets of many cities. People of Africa continue to be sacrificed so that some factories may stay open, earn capital and save jobs.

The Cold War was not cold in Africa. There, it precipitated some of the most devastating internal wars as African friends and foes of the superpowers fought it out for economic and political control. Support for the wars came from the superpowers and their allies, with much of the support coming in form of aid.

When the Cold War ended in the late 1989 many African rulers did not change with the wind. As is evident in many countries, authoritarian rulers are still holding onto power tenaciously, with some dragging their citizens into internal conflicts, wars and terror thereby diverting human and material resources towards the wars and internal security of those in power.


Africa has suffered from lack of enlightened leadership and a bad style of political and economic guidance. While African leaders could have excused themselves for being unable to protect their people from the exploits of colonial empires in the l9th and 20th centuries, they can hardly escape blame for allowing neo-colonial exploitation which continues to reduce many of their people into paupers in their own countries.

During the past three decades, Africa suffered lack of visionary and altruistic leaders committed to the welfare of their own people. They were persuaded to accept the development model of the West, borrow capital from the West and be guided by experts from the same West.

This was partly possible because the colonial administration deliberately destroyed and discredited the traditional forms of self governance in Africa. Until late 1950s when the inevitable wave of de-colonization swept across Africa natives were not allowed to practice their own form of governance, culture, religion, traditions and customs. While the colonial form of governance was being put in place, the western religion and values were being imposed on those who converted into christianity. Whatever provided guidance and order in the society was banned or condemned by the western missionaries as being incompatible with the teachings of Christ and Christianity.

Just before independence was granted, young Africans were promoted to positions hitherto unoccupied by the local people and they were trained by colonial masters to take over power from the colonial administration. Many of these African recruits were politically naive and uninformed. Some of them (or their parents) were naive corroborators with the colonial administration during the struggle for independence. Their employment into the prestigious administrative positions previously reserved for the colonial masters was a manipulative ploy. It blinded them. They became corroborating students of the same colonial administrators who wanted devotees of their philosophy and values to govern the new independent African States. These were to be the corroborators for neo-colonialism.

So fluttered by the new-found power and prestige in their new state, many Africans became sucked into a mechanism which facilitate the continued exploitation of Africa and the African people. It was easy for the new rulers to be blinded with material wealth and privileges associated with wealth and political power because they were naive and inexperienced. This development allowed the beginning of a small group of African elites who were in liaison with the rich North to continue the exploitation of the African resources while ignoring the fate of the impoverished majority.

With that bad beginning, leadership in Africa became characterized by opportunism, personal advancement and enrichment at the expense of the masses. The new black administrators and the bourgeoning elites enjoyed the same economic and social life-styles and privileges which the imperial administrators enjoyed. The only difference between the two in terms of the objectives for the country was the color of their skin. This elite class became accustomed to the privileged lifestyles which was impossible to sustain without continuing the exploitation and the oppression of the governed! And thus was laid the foundation for the present political, economic and social crisis in Africa.

African leaders abandoned their people and worked closely with their counterparts in developed countries so that they could live as comfortably as their northern counterparts and enjoy the political and economic power and the privileges which go with it.

Africans masses became disillusioned and started to agitate for better governance. Unable to deliver a better quality of life to their citizens, many African leaders assumed totalitarianism and held their citizens prisoners in their own countries. That is when internal conflicts, torture and imprisonment of dissenting voices thrived. It was with full knowledge of the more democratic and developed countries. But during the Cold War human rights and the need for a democratic cultures were sacrificed.

With the advent of democratisation the citizens are rebelling and are threatening the very existence of the nation states. Some have collapsed. Uncertain and threatened, those in charge of such weakened states have succumbed to corruption, and more and more African states resemble a crumbling house from which both the owner and the onlookers scramble to escape with whatever can be looted. As a result, the civil society mistrusts and dislikes politicians and civil servants perceiving them as self-serving, greedy and corrupt.

The few African leaders who have demonstrated visionary leadership have been misunderstood and unsupported at home due to naivety and ignorance about the political forces at play in Africa. They also received no support from the international community. Instead, corrupt and unpopular African dictators, received huge support especially in form of military aid which sustain them in power. These dictators built up massive armies, police forces and huge networks of secret service whose main preoccupation was, and still is, to spy on and terrorize their own citizens. In many African states, including the one I know best, Kenya, citizens have become prisoners and refugees within their own borders. They are denied freedom of speech, movement, assembly and association. They are required to carry identity cards which police will demand at gun point and may not assemble without a licence to do so.

Further, in Kenya, citizens are denied access to accurate and independent information because the Government refuses to licence independent radio and television stations even while using the state mass media as a mechanism for state propaganda and personal glorification. Uninformed and even misinformed, the African community remains marginalised politically and economically.

The African leaders preoccupy themselves with internal security, especially of themselves and those with whom they rule the country, and political survival. They misdirect scarce resources into state security machinery, a bloated civil service and prestigious, political projects such as the 3rd International Airport in Kenya, being constructed in the President's hometown (Eldoret) against the advice of the majority of Kenyans. In addition, leaders find it necessary to make changes in national constitutions to give themselves near absolute powers to control all national resources and mechanisms of governance (radio, television, the judicial system, the civil service, the police and the armed forces). All of these resources are utilised as if they were personal property of the heads of states and their appointees. Yet they are intended to serve citizens and provide checks and balances against dictatorial tendencies. Instead, they are utilised to ensure that dictators remain in power even against the will of their people.

In Kenya today, citizens lose their jobs if they give press coverage through the state media to any person who is out of favour with the government even if the subject that person is dealing with is essential to the national development agenda. For example, one young woman recently lost her job the day after she screened an environmental documentary on the Green Belt Movement called "Women at Work" produced by NOVIB, a Dutch organisation dedicated to development work in developing countries. This was because the main speaker (a woman) in the film happens to be a person the government had apparently censored. The TV station had obviously not been informed about the censorship. The officers in charge were expected to know that such a person is not to be screened on television. If the young woman had screened wrestling and violent foreign films on the same national TV she would still be employed!. She could have gone to court to assert her rights, but it is expensive and judges too serve at the pleasure of the same government.

So, many of the current African leaders enjoy immense political-and economic power and control and indeed run states as if they were their own personal property. They have invented divisive and manipulative tactics reminiscent of the colonial tactics of divide and rule. Such is for example the ongoing politically motivated ethnic cleansing in Kenya which has affected thousands of women many of whom are still internal refugees.

But nationally (and even internationally), national mass media present such conflicts in Africa as ancient tribal animosities between African tribes coming to the fore at this time of political liberalisation and demands for democratic reforms. For a continent which continues to be projected as primitive and underdeveloped, it is easy to spread these misconceptions and misrepresentations to the international community and for the same to accept that bad leadership is a heritage Africa is incapable of escaping.

And so many Africans continue to live under regimes where the freedom of the press and information is curtailed, where citizens may not assemble or freely associate without being harassed by armed policeman who demand licenses, passes and permits. The above mentioned ethnic cleansing in Kenya is a creation of political leadership rather than an age-old animosity over ethnicity and land. But citizens have no way of telling their own story because the mass media is censured and people are threatened and even arrested if they speak. Properly guided, the Kenyan tribes (and elsewhere) would live together peacefully as they have done for generations and would negotiate over whatever differences emerge, now that certain resources like land are diminishing and as populations continue to increase. Negotiations rather than inter-tribal fighting would be their option.

The threat of a more open political system and a strong civil society has disquieted enough African leaders and has forced them to encourage the brewing of tribal tensions the worst of which was the recent violence which ravaged Rwanda and Somalia. It is important to emphasise that it is not the tribes who want to fight, rather, it is the threatened elitist leaders who are using tribes to arouse ethnic nationalism as the only way they can continue to cling to political and economic power and the privileges which that power comes with. Such leaders speak peace while they are planning civil wars.

One could give these leaders the benefit of the doubt. But, in Africa it would be impossible for any community to train militia, arm them, kill members of the targeted communities (in full view of the police force) without the personal sanctioning of the heads of states who are also the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces.

This is not to say that ethnicity is non-existent or that Africa will not have to address the problems of tribal identity and ethnic nationalism, and especially since African national boundaries were created very superficially by the colonial empires. Nevertheless, the tribal agenda today has to do less with problems of identity and ethnic nationalism and more with the issue of political survival, economic control and diminishing national resources.

Of course one cannot over-rule the presence of external forces and factors because, a weak, disunited and war-ravaged Africa for example, will even be easier to control and exploit. Not to mention that it becomes a big market for small firearms from nations whose economy needs to sell them.

African dictators may continue to argue that democracy is a western value which cannot work in Africa while at the same time they deny their citizens basic freedoms. In Kenya, for example, the state has denied any possibility of allowing the introduction of independent media networks and continues to ban books, pamphlets and newsletters which inform the civil society about their rights and responsibilities. NGOs which work to empower the non-state actors and ordinary citizens are harassed and attacked physically. Yet citizens are hungry for information which is uncensored by the State. A misinformed citizenry cannot make intelligent decisions about their political and economic destiny and nurture any democratic culture of their own without the right to choose. And such people cannot stop the forces which work to have them sidelined and marginalised while their resources are exploited by the local and the globalised free market.


This continuous frustration of the democratisation process is a major bottleneck to any developmental agenda. Africans, like all other human beings, want to enjoy the basic freedom and rights. They want justice, equity, transparency, responsibility and accountability. They want respect and human dignity. They want a decent life and an opportunity to feed, shelter and clothe their families through honest, hard work. They want to create a strong civil society which can hold its leaders accountable and responsible. Such leadership would create an environment which would facilitate creativity, innovativeness, self-confidence, persistence and progress. They want to sustain mechanisms of governance which ensure the security of the people rather than the security of heads of States. That is the type of democracy millions of Africans are striving for. And that is what they would like the leadership in the world to help facilitate morally, economically, and politically.

In his day, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana is said to have urged Africans to seek first the political freedom and all else would be added unto them. Today Africans are seeking for political freedom which is more democratic, just and fair form of governance so that the economic benefits may be added unto them. It is impossible to do much for the African community until there is political freedom, peace and justice. As one looks at the bottlenecks mentioned in this statement it would appear that Kwame Nkrumah was right. Only, he did not add that it must be political freedom embracing liberty, equity, justice and peace.

Incidentally, the recent power sharing in South Africa offers an interesting alternative for Africa. Everything notwithstanding, the dominant political culture of "winner takes all" was forfeited for national unity in an experiment which however, awaits the test of time. South Africans have enormous mountains to climb and it is prudent to see how they will accomplish the feat. Nevertheless, the traditional acquisition of absolute power and the control of national resources by "the winner'' is one major motivation for dictatorships in Africa. Those who "win," even with a minority vote, inherit the land and all its wealth ....literally! And therefore, make all efforts to retain that power, the privileges and trappings which go with it. Of course, the historical and the political reasons for the South African experiment are very different but it nevertheless, offers an interesting alternative approach to power as Africa continues the search for good governance in the African context.


Africa has been maligned and ridiculed by the same people who have exploited it and under-developed it. It continues to be marginalised politically and economically and even socially. There is lack of genuine support, cooperation and equal partnership from the rich international community especially now that the Cold War is over. There is more rhetoric than action despite the fact that everybody knows what the problems are since they are discussed in myriad words in books, magazines, evaluation reports and development plans, many of which are written by expatriates from the same international communities and aid agencies.

But as if to justify relief and financial aid, people from the rich countries are more willing to go to Africa to implement relief services like feeding emaciated infants, discover Africans dying of horrible diseases like AIDs and Ebola, be peacekeepers in war torn countries and send horrifying images of tragedies for television. Hardly any of the friends of Africa are willing to tackle the political and economic decisions being made in their own countries and which are partly responsible for the same horrible images brought to their living rooms by television. Relevant questions are deliberately avoided and those who ask them fall out of favor and become political targets. And therefore, those who are responsible for tragedies in Africa escape blame which is laid at the feet of the victims. And Africa continuous to be portrayed in a very degrading and dehumanizing way. As if when others elsewhere look worse off than selves, it feels better and luckier. Perhaps it is playing on human nature: when Africa is projected as negatively as possible, it makes others else where feel better and overlook the economic and political policies of their own countries, many of which are responsible for the situations they see on television.

For example, most foreign aid to Africa comes in form of curative social welfare programmes such as famine relief, food aid, population control programmes, refugee camps, peace-keeping forces and humanitarian missions. At the same time, hardly available are resources for preventive and sustainable human development programmes such as functional education and training, development of infrastructure, institutional and capacity building, food production and processing, the promotion of creative innovations and entrepreneurship. There are no funds for development of their own cultural, spiritual and social programmes which would empower people and release their creative energy. Such programmes find few sympathizers.

In the current scenario therefore, development programmes which receive enthusiastic support are those which generate much wealth for the international communities even as they put Africans into more debts. In 1991 for example, developed countries are said to have received about 1361 billion US dollars from developing countries in trade transactions and transferred only about 60 billions US dollars in form of aid and grants! That is hardly just trade, hardly charity. It is claimed that all the aid Africa gets is repaid several times over through trade transactions, including using that aid to purchase goods from the country which 'gives' aid. Africa ends up with a deficit.

This state of affairs should not be encouraged by international trade transactions which promote growth for some regions of the world and stagnation, regression and impoverishment for others. It is inequitable, unjust, irresponsible and destroys the local environment. It is trade which contributes to impoverishment of Africa much more than the population numbers per see. Yet the focus for poverty alleviation in Africa is often tagged to the population increase and environmental degradation.

The end of the Cold War has made Africa less useful to the rich industrialized countries. Therefore, Africa is now being blamed for having no credible policies and strategies to reduce the many problems facing Africa including the ecological crisis and internal conflicts. It is also being accused of blocking democratisation process and liberalisation of the markets, supporting a bloated civil service and accommodating high level corruption. During the Cold War these issues were there but the same international community turned a blind eye to them.


Technology is key to economic development. One wonders whether the technologically advanced nations are really interested in transferring technology to less advanced nations which, if successful, would make then more competitive and self-reliant? Is it naive on the part of the technologically less advanced to expect genuine transfer of this type of knowledge? At the moment technology transfer into Africa continues to be in the form of consumer technology which only allows people to learn what technology to consume and how to consume it.

Only a new partnership in a new era of cooperation could make government and its people agree to transfer technological information which can make a difference. Only a new breed of African political leaders could put the welfare of their people first and make it the basis for political and economic policies. With such new partnership and international cooperation local innovations and initiatives would be supported without discrimination. For unless Africa creates the environment for creative innovations and supports the same, she will remain technologically backward in a world where technology dominates commerce, politics and even culture. People of good will can help Africa, but Africa must create the enabling environment for her people to benefit from such support. Political leadership with that vision is currently lacking in many African countries.


Organisations like Transparency International and others which study the illegal transfer of capital from Africa to the rich northern countries give reasons to suggest that a large portion of funds which are advanced to Africa by the international community for development are stolen and stashed away in secret bank accounts in developed countries. Much secrecy surrounds these financial transactions and it is still not good politics to raise such issues. But it is suggested that if these funds were made available to an uncorrupt Africa the continent would need no more aid and grants. Yet Africans are collectively blamed as corrupt and many donors now explain their unwillingness to support Africa by arguing that assisting Africa is like pouring money into a rat hole.

We continue to raise this issue because we believe that one way to assist Africa economically and to end the often-spoken- about 'donor fatigue' would be to locate these funds and return them to Africa or to the World Bank and IMF and to any other international donors agencies which advanced them. Instead of advocating for charity and forgiving Africa her international debts, it should be possible to retrieve all stolen capital and return-it to the original owners since it was never used for the purpose for which it was advanced. This would demonstrate that indeed there can be new global values and ethics referred to by the Commission on Global Governance in its recent report, Our Global Neighbourhood. It would be a matter of being just, fair and responsible to the ordinary African on whose behalf the funds were borrowed and from whom repayments are demanded. Other wise, many future generations of Africans will be born already deeply in debt and already deeply immersed in poverty. Such people cannot play any role in international trade and are at the risk of being turned into commodities.


Corruption is a serious cancer in Africa and it is eating into every aspect of life and into every socio-economic groups. The misery it brings to ordinary Africans and the opportunity it provides to non Africans to exploit Africa is reminiscent of the exploits of the Slave Trade. Today's African leaders are comparable to the African slave barons who facilitated the capturing and the selling-off of millions of their fellow blacks to distant lands where they were subjugated into slavery, only today they are subdued within their own borders.

In the City of Nairobi for example, corruption has enabled the grabbing of open spaces which are essential aspects of a good urban environment and a good quality of life. In these open spaces are mushrooming huge villas, community centres, temples and sports complexes for exclusive members of communities who thrive because of such corruption. This process has effectively segregated local people whose members are left without such public facilities because they are different and poor, never mind that they are the indigenous citizens. In scenes only reported in countries where black people feel threatened, African children have been shot dead by armed police reserves who are defended in law courts and set free. In one such case in Nairobi, a police reservist who shot a street boy six times and then spat on him before throwing his body into a ditch was released when his lawyer effectively argued that the policeman shot in self-defence!

So, as we speak about commodities and communities it is important to be concerned about justice. What is the truth about Africa's international debts? When does stealing become a crime at the international level? Perhaps when the truth around the secret financial transactions in Africa is revealed and finally exposed, the world will be as shocked on how Africa was economically crippled, as it is dismayed, when it now comprehends the atrocities of the transoceanic Slave Trade or the Jewish Holocaust in Europe during the second World War. So much burden is being placed on the Africans by the international community and the African leaders appear incapable of protecting their own people from such exploitation and indebtness.

If it is a crime to kill half a million people in Rwanda in 1994, it should be a crime to steal millions of dollars from ordinary Africans, thereby causing the death to millions of innocent people through sustained hunger and malnutrition, lack of adequate health care, and inflationary prices which make it impossible for millions of Africans to provide their families with basic needs. Why is this type of a crime tolerated by the international community? Why is the victim to blame while the culprit goes free and lives in comfort?

Africa is more than its leaders and more than the political and economic interests which influence decisions about her. Concern for Africa ought to be concern for the African people and for the future generations of Africans. Those who are cooperating and protecting stolen wealth from Africa should not be protected by global public opinion which wishes to pretend that this is the way Africans do business. Perhaps there should be an international code of moral responsibility to make those who steal from the public and those who keep and protect such stolen wealth responsible for the economic insecurity they cause to the affected countries, in about the same way ethnic wars threaten peace and security of people in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Kenya and the former Yugoslavia. Those who are responsible should be tried for crimes. Perhaps it is time there were economic crimes against humanity. Besides that, such stolen wealth should be retrieved and returned to the creditors. This could be a great economic humanitarian intervention for Africa! And it could be one way of alleviating poverty and underdevelopment in that part of the world.

Sometimes it appears like these ills are tolerated because they happen in Africa. The US, the World Bank and IMF would not have tolerated such financial and economic mismanagement during the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after the World War Two and they would not have ignored a mismanaged Europe and Japan and call it a European or Asian burden.

Marginalising and ignoring Africa in her times of crisis raises these questions because it is contrary to the ideals and the principles which the United Nations, World Bank and IMF were founded upon. Various forces which shape human history and destiny have placed other regions of the world in similar predicaments. The world's reaction was not to marginalise or ignore them. They were genuinely assisted with the necessary financial requirements and technology. And it was not just technology transfer for consumerism. Africa may have many reasons to blame herself, but the world is not innocent about her. I think that there is need for new approach to business and international trade which puts people before commodities and before profits.


Despite many African countries having achieved political independence the national economic market is still designed to supply the international markets with agricultural stimulants like coffee, tea, nuts and luxury delicacies like green beans, tropical fruits and flowers. The national economic and political policy do not enable the African people to benefit from the international market. They are still unable to engage and sustain economic activities and creative initiatives which would generate wealth for them and give them the confidence they so desperately need. Market forces, especially the liberalised free market and capital flow, both of which are very competitive, legitimatize the marginalisation of local initiatives which cannot compete with the giant transnational cooperations, foreign capital and attractive conditions which are created to enable foreign investors.

Further, indebtness of African states is making it difficult for the state to protect its citizen from being overwhelmed by international organisations on whose behalf IMF, World Bank and other donors demand liberalisation and free markets. Small local initiatives with comparatively little capital do not stand a chance against the onslaught.

At the moment Africans are unable to stop foreign investments at the national level, even if they do not need them due to the cooperation between African dictatorial leaders and foreign investors. Recently for, example, when large sections of the Kenyan public opposed the construction of a third international airport in the President's home town of Eldoret, and argued that it was an unnecessary political project and a white elephant which will only increase Kenya's international debt, government spokesmen defended it as a necessary economic venture needed for the exportation of French beans, fruits and roses to Europe! The company involved in the construction of the airport is Canadian Lavalin International which can only be interested in the envisaged huge profits to be accrued from this project.

Since the government enjoys near absolute power over national affairs, donors and international business interests will probably, nevertheless, go ahead and support the construction of this international airport and indebt the already debt-burdened Kenyans against their will. Such is the fate of millions of powerless citizens in much of Africa. The huge profits waiting to be made, make the international community and financial agencies look the other way as the African debt rises. That is putting commodities and profits before communities. Without an enabling national political leadership and an international public opinion which considers it immoral to support that type of business, Africa is likely to remain exploited and marginalised by such inequitable and unsympathetic world trade.

Therefore, African leaders must be pressurized to improve governance and make it more democratic and accountable to the people so that the African people may assume control of their resources and their economies. International investments are important and an open market is desired, but unless one has a government which cares about its people, it is difficult to see how any development model designed and carried out by an international community which comes to Africa to make profits would generate wealth for the African people. So far they have only been ripped off. The continent is wealthy but the wealth is mined by and for the benefit of others outside the region. Of course, it is the African leaders who facilitate this mining of the wealth from the continent to other regions but that does not make it fair or just.


Most Africans are among the 1.3 billion people who live in utter poverty and who received only 15% of the world income in 1990. Their mean income continues to drop. Africans have so far been unable to empower themselves economically, create adequate income generating work and avoid continued marginalisation. This situation is contributing to insecurity at national, regional and even village level.

Symptoms of poverty and disillusionment are everywhere in sub Sahara African in particular and express themselves in form of lack of basic facilities like clean water, food, medical care, sanitation and infrastructure. It also expresses itself in the large number of refugees, migrations, environmental degradation, sustained hunger and malnutrition, political instability, internal ethnic conflicts, alcoholism and other forms of drug abuse, diseases and low life expectancy. According to a WHO's report called, Bridging the Gaps, poverty is now the leading cause of premature death across the planet but more so in the developing areas like Sub-Sahara Africa.

What is the reason for this economic marginalisation and impoverishment of Africa? It is partly because many of them do not participate in formulating and implementing their development policies. Decisions which affect their economic and political life are made by others in foreign capitals in the company of a few of their ruling elites. These are the policies and decisions which facilitate the siphoning of their wealth, literally from under their feet. In the process they are marginalised and disempowered economically, denied access to information, knowledge and resources and forced to over mine their environment thereby, jeopardizing even their future generations.

However, the causes of that poverty are not as obvious. Neither are they often addressed. This is because the causes, such as bad governance, increased military spending, mismanagement, corruption, huge prestigious and political projects, such as the 3rd International Airport in Eldoret, are the methods used by those enjoying political power to amass more wealth for themselves at the expense of those they govern.

The ruling African elite is a new class of people in Africa, hugely privileged, enjoying the fruits of economic growth and innovations and, deliberately supporting and helping to.perpetuate the unjust and exploitative economic world-wide phenomenon: a socio-economic and political system which favours majority of countries and individuals in the Northern Hemisphere and their small counterparts in the South, but marginalises and excludes a small number of people in the North and large numbers in the poor regions of the South.


The population of Africa is about half a billion. Yet Africa is said to be facing a persistent demographic problem which is blamed for many of the problems on the continent. The three issues of population, agriculture and environmental degradation are reported to be feeding on each other. But as some of our observations seem to indicate there are other factors whose impact on the people of Africa is more devastating than the population pressure. These factors, identified here as the bottlenecks of development should be the ones blamed for the economic underdevelopment and poverty in Africa, long before the numbers are a concern. The fact that 75% of the world's resources are for example, consumed by industrial countries with only 20% of the world population is far greater reason for the impoverishment of many in the world than the mere numbers. A depopulated Africa would still be poor and marginalised.


Good health is essential for sustained, creative and productive life. Healthy individuals are resourceful and creative and have the urge to fulfil their full potential. That is why many governments have a national health plan to ensure that it does not govern a sickly nation. But in sub-Sahara Africa 100 million of people are reported to be food insecure and many countries in the sub-region depend on food imports and emergency food aid. Therefore, millions never have enough to eat, are undernourished and are suffering from parasitic infestations and diseases associated with malnutrition and poor sanitation. In such an environment, development is bound to stagnate. Poverty, poor health and sustained hunger become a vicious endless circle in which there is diminished productivity and retrogression.

In traditional African societies food security was at the family level even though there was also a collective responsibility in the community for food security for all. Seasons were synchronized and there was a living culture associated with food production, seed selection and post-harvest storage. Important structures at every homestead included granaries for grains and beans while certain crops like bananas, sugarcanes, roots crops and green vegetables were always available in the field, and especially between harvests.

At the onset of colonial era in Africa and introduction of cash crops (coffee, tea, nuts, sugarcane plantations, horticultural crops, etc.) all that changed. The traditional farming culture was demeaned, discredited and destroyed along with much of other heritages of Africa. Crop land was commercialized for cash crops, granaries disappeared from the homesteads, and people became dependent on processed foods from shops. The cash economy took over.

At the same time species of trees like the eucalyptus, black wattle and conifer trees replaced indigenous species not only on farmlands but also in forest areas. As a result farmlands have lost water and certain crops like bananas, sugarcanes and local species of arrow roots no longer thrive on the drier farmlands to give food security to the local communities.

The colonial administration introduced the idea of state food security to replace the traditional food security measures. At independence, the government took over the responsibility of feeding the nation and is expected to ensure that there is enough food in state granaries to avert hunger. It is therefore, the primary responsibility of every government to ensure an adequate level of nutrition and health to its citizens. But notwithstanding statements at international conferences and roundtables of development agencies about agriculture, food security, farming techniques and preventive medicine, the only farming sector which receives adequate attention is that which deals with cash crop and the one which brings in foreign exchange (coffee, nuts, tea, flowers and horticultural crops intended for export). Unfortunately, farmers are paid little for their crops and payments are often delayed. Therefore, many families sustain hunger and malnutrition in places where their own parents and grandparents had surplus food.

Most of the available food in Africa is produced by women and children who provide the intensive labour required on small farms under cash crops. Except for the cash crops, agriculture and food production in Africa is still a low priority, political statements not withstanding, with many farmers having sacrificed food production in favour of cash crops. At the same time, women's work (even in food production) is still rated low, is not a priority, has no prestige and women farmers are not adequately compensated for their labor. Governments give little attention to food production for home consumption.

And food has even become a political weapon with leader in power keeping the key to the national granaries, disposing of the food even when their own people need it and subsequently appealing for food from the international community. Agricultural Cooperative movements, once intended to support farmers, have been misused and mismanaged by government-appointed bureaucrats in the parasitical organisations. The national agricultural policies discourage food production by local farmers and opt for cheap food in the international market. Therefore, only a government which cares about its people will protect its citizens from the politics of food. And only strong, informed non-state actors of the civil society would persuade its government not to sacrifice the local farmers at the altar of international food politics and profiteering.


Yet another obstacle to development is illiteracy. Perhaps because Africa did not have its own alphabets, literacy is an over-valued asset and education and the ability to read and write has been over emphasised and equated with extraordinary abilities. And illiterate people over-trust those who can read and write under-value and underestimate themselves. This poor self-image and lack of self-confidence nurture an inferiority complex which puts illiterate citizens at the mercy of literate members of society.

The other source of general knowledge and information is the radio. Yet the Government refuses to issue licences for independent air waves, arguing that the State-controlled media is adequate for the people. In mid-February 1995, for example, the Ambassador of the United States to Kenya expressed the wish of her Government to see the development of independent media networks. She hoped that the Kenya government would issue licences because freedom of the press was a prerequisite to good governance and the freedom to choose. For daring to state that, she was heavily criticized by government ministers who accused her of interfering with the sovereignty and independence of Kenya. The national radio and television are the means of communication and are intended for public information and education. Unfortunately, many leaders in Africa use the national radio and television for propaganda and personal aggrandizement, censoring all information reaching the public.

Yet, the phenomenon of a national government being given directives by foreign envoys about national issues is also embarrassing because it is indicative of the amount of sovereignty African nations have already sacrificed so that they may be given aid and grants by the governments which such envoys represent. Sovereignty is constantly being interfered with by the World Bank, IMF and other members of the Paris Club when they make demands for the political and economic environment in which they prefer to do business. But the government would not wish such weaknesses to be exposed because that dismystifies their enormous image. Hence the fuss over comments by such envoys even though the reality is well known by all. The very fact that a foreign envoy has to appeal to a national government over human rights of its own citizens is indicative of the oppressive governance under which citizens live. Uninformed, such citizens are easily cowed, manipulated and governed.


At independence many African States adopted imperial European languages as official languages and all official communication (in the mass media, courts, administration, education etc.) is conducted in those languages. These languages are formally learned in the class room. They are the medium of instruction and communication on school compounds and children are encouraged to speak it at home. That way, it is hoped, students become more proficient and follow instructions of other lessons which are also given in the same foreign languages. Therefore, from the onset, children are cut off from much of family and community conversation and exchanges. The children gradually become alienated from the community's culture and values and identify with the culture and values of the foreign people about whom they read and talk.

People equate education and progress with the ability to speak and write in these languages and entry into the job market, or upward social mobility, is virtually impossible without the ability to read and write in them. Yet only a small number of the African elites speak and write fluently and competently in these languages, even at the University level. This is a small group which communicates with itself, minimizes local languages and culture and feels proud speaking foreign languages and mimicking foreign cultures and values. By so doing this class of Africans control information which reaches their people. They deliberately keep them from sharing or receiving information in their languages, and therefore, keep them largely uniformed and ignorant about matters that affect them but which are communicated through press. It is partly, fear of an informed civil society which forces governments to ban local pamphlets and news letters in local languages. They consider them subversives.

For example on 23rd February, 1995 the Kenya government banned a pamphlet titled, Inooro which was published by the Catholic Diocese of Murangá. It was the only source of national news in a local language with a circulation of 15,000 copies which changed hands several times in the rural areas. Similarly, Mwangaza Trust which was producing its information on democratisation and methods of empowering the civil society in 9 local languages was threatened with a government ban. It fought in a court of law for survival but eventually succumbed to pressure and folded up. Why would a government and the African elites prove unwilling to allow their people to communicate in their own mother tongues?

In a continent where illiteracy is high, communication technology sparse, transport slow and inadequate and mass media is censored by the State, use of foreign languages further marginalises the majority of the indigenous populations and greatly reduces their capacity to participate in the development agenda. There is something grossly wrong with a government officer who addresses a group of illiterate rural folks in a foreign language! As a recent article by Ali Mazrui noted, "English in Africa for example, has both weakened and stultified indigenous languages by marginalising them in national life and in the education system." He continues,"The huge imperial prestige enjoyed by the English language distorted educational priori ties, diverted resources from indigenous cultures towards giving English preeminence, and diluted the esteem in which indigenous languages were held." This, Mazrui noted in the article, has been at a high price of psychological damage to the colonized African.

Most Africans seem to have accepted that their own languages are fundamentally inferior to the English language and assume linguistic fatalism. Unfortunately, that fatalism also affects cultural and spiritual experiences and values. Denied pride in anything indigenous a person can only degenerate into a shuttle that anyone can influence and manipulate. That is particularly true in spirituality and cultural values. The damage this experience has in Africa is devastating. Perhaps the time has come to give it a hard look and ask relevant questions.

The inability of a country to communicate effectively with itself ought to be recognized as a major obstacle to development, especially at this time of communication revolution. Inability to communicate effectively disempowers people, gives them an inferiority complex, kills their self-confidence and destroys creative energy. It minimizes indigenous knowledge and expertise, make people perpetual students of the glorified foreign ways of life and encourages them to despise their own culture and values. Perhaps it requires some courage to admit that European languages, so highly valued in the world, may not be essential for all the 1/2 billion Africans and that may in fact be a bottleneck to their development and participation in national affairs.

The few elites and vestiges of former colonial powers may be excused for believing that development is impossible without these foreign languages. But so did those who believed in Greek, Latin and French (the former language of diplomats and royalty). Insisting on foreign languages for universal functional literacy in Africa is tragic because literacy, use of own language and culture are very important in human development and in cultivating self-worth, self-confidence and self-pride.

Is there a people in the world today who are proud of who they are, who have escaped under-development and poverty without a unifying language, a basic cultural heritage and spiritual philosophy inherent and indigenous to that people? How proud would the English be if they were forced to speak French or German and vice versa? Why should Africans be different? Or is it lack of self-conscienceness and a feeling of inadequacy?

Is it this feeling of inadequacy that led Africa to copy the development paradigm of the West in the mistaken belief that Africa can also develop and catch up with the West even though Africa has no masses and colonies to exploit and no people to enslave? Can Africa succeed if it has to continue succumbing to the open free market and to the borrowing of capital from those who have accumulated it through unjust trade practices? Well, it has been so advised by those who themselves could not have reached the level of affluence they are enjoying without exploiting others, and especially Africa.


All human beings have their traditional culture, knowledge, language, wisdom, spiritual heritage and values. These have been accumulated in the course of their life experiences for thousands of years since mankind started roaming this planet. This heritage is therefore, much older than the Dead Sea Scrolls, many scriptures, masterpieces of literature and music, and of course modern media which now shapes our perception of ourselves. By comparison, the oldest of these written records are barely 5,000 years!

The African people's heritage is their historical record which has been passed from one generation to another and which directs communities in times of peace, insecurity and in times of birth, life and death. This heritage gives them self-identity, self-confidence and self respect. It allows them to be in harmony with their physical and spiritual environment. It is the basis for their personal peace, or lack of it.

This heritage also enhances their capacity for self-leadership, decision making and self-guidance. It is their antennae into the unknown future and their reference point into their past. Without such guidelines in the community there can be no peace at the personal or even at the community level. Such a community becomes weakened and eventually, disintegrates.

While some people have invented the art of reading and writing and have been able to record their accumulated heritage in scriptures, history and literature books, art and music, philosophy and metaphysics etc., others have so far passed it through oral instructions, stories, mythologies, ceremonies, customs, habits and values.

Through years of domination, many of the African people have been robbed of their heritage which has been relegated to archives of primitive cultures and paganism, witchcraft and satanism. That perception has brought confusion, doubts and misunderstanding. That is why it was significant that in December, 1994 the Archbishop of Caterburry, Archbishop Carey, accepted that some missionaries erred when they condemned all aspects of African culture and relegated it to the devilish and pagan witchcraft. He apologized for the wrongs done and hoped that this wrong be put right and restore confidence and self respect to the African way of life.

Unfortunately, the damage has been so total that one wonders if any of the religious leaders in the country heard that message, let alone dare do anything about it.

Partly because of this adulteration of the African culture, Africa denies its diversity by encouraging the destruction of the different cultural heritages of various communities. By denying the cultural identity of communities governments hope that tribal nationalism would evaporate.

This state of adulteration may not last much longer because sooner or later a disempowered community begins to ask itself soul searching questions on how to re-empower itself, liberate itself, and overcome divisive foreign concepts introduced into the community to weaken it politically, economically and culturally.

For Africans were de-culturalized in ways intended to de-mystify, demean and devastate their personality and leave them unclear about their identity, values, and spirituality. Many foreigners even believed, and taught, that the African culture and spirituality were an impediment to progress and should be discarded. This has given the African an inferiority complex which in turn, legitimates holding them in contempt and demeaning and discrediting everything about them. In the meantime, other people's heritage has been glorified and forced upon them as being spiritually and materially superior. Such heritage is given as the answer to their material and spiritual impoverishment. But this has failed to give them identity, self-pride, confidence and hope. At best it only provides them with a place to escape to and hide to survive.

By the end of the process of colonization, de-culturalization and de spiritualization of Africans had become perfected. They had no country, no capital, no culture and no spiritual philosophy to guide them. They almost came to believe that in order to become like the West they had to adopt the culture, religion, language, ideologies. money, dress etc. of the West. Also, to be guided by expatriates from the West. That belief has brought many Africans to the present dilemma.


All through the ages the African people have made efforts to deliver themselves from oppressive forces. It is important that a critical mass of Africans do not accept the verdict that the world tries to push down their throat so as to give up and succumb. The struggle must continue. It is important to nurture any new ideas and initiatives which can make a difference for Africa.

In the middle of this century for example, Africa set out to rekindle the spirit of self-liberation from colonial powers. And some three decades ago, the political leaders of modern Africa identified three major objectives as they became the first post-colonial African rulers:

  • to decolonize the entire continent
  • to promote unity
  • to effect economic and social development

With the recent political freedom of Namibia and South Africa that generation of African leaders may consider their first agenda virtually complete. A more difficult agenda will be to de-colonize the mind and re-claim the cultural and spiritual heritage of the African people. The new generation of African leaders are expected to address the last two objectives and free their people from fear of war and poverty. They are expected to give Africa back her dignity and self-respect.

That notwithstanding, Africa finds herself in the middle of new challenges and in a very competitive and unsympathetic world. And so, even before Africans advance from tribal "state" to the nation state, the latter is already crumbling under the pressure of economic and political forces which are shaping the 21st Century.

It is not an easy battle to fight because five hundred years is a long time to struggle against all forms of oppression. To overcome such a historical burden is an enormous task because the battles of five centuries have left Africans weakened economically, politically but especially, culturally and spiritually. The chains which still hold them in bondage are often the trappings of power, prestige and the comfortable lifestyles exemplified by but a few of their leaders. And, the erroneous belief that in time, they can all get there. These trappings have destroyed African leaders and has left the continent without vision and commitment to social, political and economic progress.

But there is no giving up. There is hope. Generations of Africans have fought many valiant battles against many gross violations of the rights of the African people. The power of evil has repeatedly been overcome by the power of the intrinsic goodness of mankind. There are many examples to give inspiration, hope and a sense of pride. A people less endowed with the power of the human spirit would have become extinct and wiped from the face of this planet. This rich heritage should be the source of our empowerment.

Indeed it is empowerment for me. I draw strength from past triumphs. They give me reason to fight injustices of today. They remind me of the victorious road which we have travelled and they give me strength for the journey ahead. I am always aware that I am not alone. For I am in the company of men and women whose moral strength has always changed the course of history. The collective force of women and men gathered at a conference has the capacity and the capability to bring about the desired change.

We can work together for a better world with men and women of goodwill, those who radiate the intrinsic goodness of humankind. To do so effectively, the world needs a global ethic with values which give meaning to life experiences and, more than religious institutions and dogmas, sustain the non-material dimension of humanity. Mankind's universal values of love, compassion, solidarity, caring and tolerance should form the basis for this global ethiwhich should permeate culture, politics, trade, religion and philosophy. It should also permeate the extended family of the United Nations.

Without such an ethic the power game, materialism and individualism takes over. So also would anarchy, egoism, hatred, injustices, violence and intolerance. We must make our choice or others, less sympathetic, will make that choice for us.

Thank you.