For the past week, I’ve been on an observer mission. I was generously invited to Rwanda to witness the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Extraordinary Session of the African Union. Among the many events of the week, I took part in the AfCFTA Business Forum promoted under the title “Leveraging the Power of Business to Drive Africa’s Integration.” Witnessing the sage pluck with which H.E. Olusegun Obasanjo, Former President of Nigeria, confidently challenged sitting Presidents to improve their knowledge of business and the world was poetically brilliant theater. The polished sagacity of H.E. Emmerson Mnangagwa, President of Zimbabwe responding to journalists with flawless reference to constitutional rule of law was legendary. And the social adept positioning of issues like cross-border freedom of movement demonstrated by H.E. Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, put many of the deflection-oriented world leaders to shame.
But as I listened to the speeches at the African Continental Free Trade Area Business Forum on 20 March, 2018 and as I traveled to universities, businesses, and ministries this week, I kept hearing Genesis 1:27 echoing in my mind. Into What Image and Likeness is Rwanda Being Crafted? When the Germans saw the region as a coffee production opportunity, was that a Rwandan vision? When the Belgian’s saw the region as an agriculture and religious colony, was that a Rwandan vision? When Louvain Catholic University’s Reverend Canon Achille Salee and F. Delhay conducted the geological surveys to provide the basis for Rwanda-Urundi Tin Mines Company (1930) and the Muhinga-Kigali Mining Company (1934) did the casserite, wolframite, and coltan serve a Rwandan-defined vision for the land or its people? And when UN, IMF and other Development Agencies tell Rwanda that it must be an ICT hub today, does anyone in Rwanda know the wheel or the car to which that hub is attached? Is becoming an educated, low labor cost cog in a global supply chain the aspiration of the country or is it a necessity of the callous colonial industrial engine that eats the souls and lives of the laborer-consumer mandate?
I watched Heads of State and their agents recite the catechism of “Development” that has been the grist for the industrial colonial overlord’s mill for decades. Without a moment of consideration, the following doctrinal invocations were hypnotically dispensed:
The pursuit of business is for the sake of profit.
The population of a place must be seen as consumers.
The aggregation of wealth by the few will inure to its distribution to others.
And of course, economic growth is the only path to a better society.
Past President Obasanjo offered the only glancing deviation from the dogma when he observed in unprepared remarks that “Education without employment is very dangerous.”
Should we lament the location in which this summit occurred? While Rwandan President H.E. Paul Kagame has, in fact, presided over the pacification and social reconciliation of a country torn apart by colonial-power fueled genocide barely 3 decades ago, I saw a disturbing narrative emerge. Rwandans have modeled the power of reconciliation between themselves to be sure. And well done there! But no voice was raised to indict the colonial influence of the Catholic Church and the largely European (and now Asians) “developers” who continue to see the region and the continent as indentured laboring consumers. The establishment of ICT training and call centers received more attention than the reconsideration of enterprise at its essence. If one country in Africa can finally consume and use more computers and smart phones built on the relentless trade of conflict metals from slave-labor conditions in another part of Africa, have we “developed”? If Rwanda’s economic success comes at the expense of its neighbors, is it success? And to be clear, President Kagame IS an out-spoken voice for a new narrative but he’s constantly bombarded with loud voices reinforcing a dominant narrative that has derailed many visionaries before.
What if business was for the balanced stewardship of both resources and utilities in which the primary objective was to achieve maximum benefit with the least inefficiency? What if social impact and reputation for quality and access were valued above the profits derived from capital and ignorance arbitrage? After all, to be a “better market”, governments had to provide inducements to foreign corporations that include tax concessions, profit repatriation, and land appropriation. Is that success or is it seduction? When Africa is described as a “market of 1.2 billion people”, have any of us stopped to consider the colonial dependencies not only on what is on offer but who is doing the offering?
In my lecture at the University of Rwanda at the generous invitation of Amb. Dr. Charles Murigande I discussed the subtle – yet important – distinction between what it means to “Choose” an outcome or “Select” from what’s on offer. To choose, I argued, is a process in which observation, discernment, valuation, and consideration are fully engaged. To select, on the other hand, is to be presented with a series of options and rank them. In the case of the former, the individual or community is encouraged to become highly informed and engaged. In the latter, the individual or community is cowed into opaque motivations by anonymous actors. In the AfCFTA summit and its appendages, selection – not choice – was on offer. Education – defined by governments and institutions controlling the narrative – is for jobs in sectors that serve a global product and service mandate – NOT an African-defined vision. Infrastructure is selected to satisfy the multi-national corporation’s production and distribution mandates. After all, no one questioned whether the Africa of tomorrow could transcend the addiction put in motion over 100 years ago by Edison and Westinghouse. Electronics are assumed, not chosen. No one considered whether within the biome, topography and culture of Africa there are options for power, transport, health, nutrition, and an array of other opportunities that leap-frog the last century’s addictions and inefficiencies. In short, the summit was not about Africa as the birthplace of humanity but rather the cul-de-sac of Western and Asian consumption-fueled economic models.
If We The People want to evidence a “better” version of business, social interactions, political structures, or our own existential improvement, its time to CHOOSE wisely. Rather than selecting from the buffet designed to make us compliantly obese, let’s emancipate ourselves to critique what’s been on offer and choose a new path. And maybe, with a little bit of luck, Africa can model for the rest of the world A More Perfect Union!
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