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All together now

Salt miner’s family,Aroune
(© Bob Geldof)

Bob Geldof with an African boy and young girl

All together now

In this extract from his new book, which charts a personal journey through Africa, Bob Geldof explores two contrasting sides of African culture – community and corruption.

What does Africa need? Development. So that’s all right then. But ask the bigger question, “What is development for?” and you get different answers according to who you ask and where they’re from.

In the West development is about increasing choice; in Africa it is more about increasing human dignity. And there’s something else. In the West we see it as about choice for individuals; in Africa living a good life is something wider – to do with wellbeing, happiness and membership of a community.

It is hard for those of us steeped in a culture of materialistic individualism to understand fully what Africa is all about. But there is a word that goes some way to explaining it. It is a word from the Nguni language family, which comprises Zulu, Xhosa and other Bantu tongues. The word is ubuntu.

African philosophers define it in this way: “A human being is a human being through the otherness of other human beings.” Which sounds a bit poncy. Bono has a neater way of expressing it. He sums it up as: “I am because we are.” Ubuntu is about interdependence. How we need each other and have a stake in each other. How one part of the community can’t thrive truly while the other part of the community is in the dirt. In tending to them, we will be better off ourselves. It’s that simple. Ubuntu.

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But there is one other key thing. The “me and them” implicit in this idea is not just a relationship between the individual and society. In Africa, as well as “me and them” there is an ‘us’ which refers to family and wider ties of kinship. An African has duties to family members that are not expected of a Westerner.

Digging around in African history it’s easy enough to see where this came from. In pre-colonial Africa, clans – groups of people who claim the same ancestor, either through birth or kinship – were the central units of administration. One thing that was common to many of these family clans was that they developed a way of making decisions, which relied on consensus rather on the judgement of an individual leader. The business of living in a hostile environment taught them that they survived best when they worked together.

This mutual accountability crossed boundaries between those who were well off and those who were poor. The wealthy were never allowed to lose sight of their obligations – and the poor were never slow in claiming their due from their betteroff relatives. It was a recognition that, whatever the personal merits or strengths of the individual, success in life always relied to some extent on membership of the group. There was no room for rampant or impersonal individualism.

Many of these strong kinship ties persist in Africa today. Not least in the “big man” culture which requires a successful member of the clan to offer patronage to other members. Patron-client relations should not be dismissed as temptations to nepotism and corruption; they reveal something about African senses of community. It is hard for outsiders to understand this. But unless we do we will never go beyond some of the stereotypes we have inherited about Africa. Cultural difference cannot be an excuse for the blatant levels of corruption that bedevil many parts of Africa. Corruption is one of Africa’s key problems. African societies are riddled with it – from kleptocratic leaders at the top, salting money away in Western bank accounts, to soldiers at roadblocks demanding bribes to let you through, to clerks in government bureaucracies charging to hand out official forms. But we in the rich world do not have clean hands here. Corruption is fed by big Western companies that routinely offer bribes to African leaders. As one of the biggest thieves in the history of Africa – the former Zairean dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko – once said: “It takes two to corrupt – the corrupted and the corrupter.” And he should know.

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We are talking ginormous sums here. The amounts now lurking in Western bank accounts run into billions of dollars. One particularly bad area is in official government purchases of goods and services. The Africa Commission report shows that wide-scale corruption adds at least 25 per cent to the costs of government projects, and often results in inferior quality construction and unnecessary purchases. Abuse of this system takes many forms. When public sector contracts are put out to sealed tender, bribes can be requested or offered. Quotations can be doctored to build in false costs. It is not only the politicians and public officials who create the problem: it is also the bankers, lawyers, accountants and engineers working on public contracts.

Flying on one internal African flight recently I met an Asian oil executive. He compared Africa with his own continent. “Our politicians are pretty corrupt but they only take 80 per cent.” I thought he was joking. But he had examples of countries in Africa whereby – after the governor of the central bank, a couple of generals and the president had taken their cut – the “signature bonuses”, as he called them, reached 90 per cent of the investment. And then, when work finally began, some other official came along to remind the oilmen that they had forgotten his 10 per cent.

There are lots of ways of fighting corruption. It requires a clampdown from willing African leaders.

It requires Western multinational companies to refuse to pay bribes and Africans to report those companies which offer them. It needs governments in the West to require their banks to send the looted money in the private accounts of corrupt Africans back where it belongs, which would be easy using existing laws on money laundering for drugs and terrorism. All of which we set out in the Africa Commission report.

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But it also requires a better understanding of African culture. It means asking, for example, if there is a point at which nepotism is not corruption to an African in a way in which it would be to an American? Should we reject nepotism completely, or should we simply draw the line only where a political leader’s relatives actually can’t do the job as well as someone else would? And should the West accept that it’s hard to control a large-scale organisation like a government in multi-ethnic societies like Africa’s, where attempts to discipline bring charges of favouritism?

If these questions seem straightforward, the answers to them are certainly not.

The book Geldof in Africa accompanies a 6-part BBC1 TV series, is published by Random House, price £20.00 and appears by kind permission.

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