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The toxic ecology of African dictators

December 7, 2009

By Alemayehu G. Mariam 
December 7, 2009

The inconvenient truth about Africa today is that dictatorship presents a far more perilous threat to the survival of Africans than climate change. The devastation African dictators have wreaked upon the social fabric and ecosystem of African societies is incalculable.

Over the past several decades, bloodthirsty dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s (The Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko, Central African Republic’s Jean Bedel Bokassa, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Chad’s Hissiene Habre, and the political fraternal twins Mengistu Haile Mariam and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia have been responsible for untold deaths on the continent. Millions of Africans have starved to death because of the criminal negligence, depraved indifference and gross incompetence of African dictators, not climate change. Millions more suffer today in abject poverty because corrupt African dictators have systematically siphoned off international aid, pilfered loans provided by the international banks and plundered the tax coffers. Africans face extreme privation and mass starvation not because of climate change but because of the rapacity of power-hungry dictators. The continent today suffers from a terminal case of metastasized cancer of dictatorships, not the blight of global warming.

The fact that greenhouse gas emissions (global warming) from human activities are responsible for a dangerous elevation of the global temperature is accepted by most climatologists in the world. Only clueless flat-earther troglodytes like U.S. Senator James Inhofe believe that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by “the media, Hollywood and our pop culture.” The general scientific understanding is that the planet is facing ruin from an unprecedented combination of extreme weather patterns, floods, droughts, heat waves and epidemics. The developed countries are primarily blamed for the rise in temperatures caused by excess industrial carbon emissions. This is evident in the increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s near-surface air and oceans. Africa has contributed virtually nothing to global warming. For instance, Africa produces an average of 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide per person per year compared to 16 metric tons for every American.

For Africa, climate change paints a doomsday scenario: Global warming will severely aggravate the atmospheric circulation and precipitation in the African monsoonal system resulting in severe shortages in agricultural output. Millions of Africans will die from famine, and the continent’s agriculture will be crippled. Deforestation and overgrazing will cause further increases in global temperatures through emission of greenhouse gases. Africa’s subsistence farmers who already operate in marginal environments will face catastrophic consequences in terms of decreased tillable and pastoral lands. Competition for water, agricultural and grazing land and other resources will inevitably result in conflicts and wars. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, trypanosomiasis and others will spread rapidly causing large scale deaths in Africa.

The climate change debate has been honey in the mouths of forked tongue African dictators. It has provided them the perfect foil to avoid detection and accountability for their corruption and mismanagement of their societies, and a convenient opportunity to divert attention from their criminal state enterprises. Global warming has proven to be the perfect substitute for the old Bogeymen of Africa– colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism and poverty. Why is Africa reduced to becoming the “beggar continent of the planet”? Global warming! Why are millions starving (euphemistically referred to as “severe food shortages” by officials) to death in Ethiopia? Climate change. African dictators are using global warming as their new preferred ideology behind which they can hide and ply their trade of corruption while expanding their thriving kleptocracies.

The global warming debate has also offered African dictators a historic opportunity to guilt-trip the industrialized countries and rob them blind. Beginning on December 7, a phalanx of African climate change negotiators will swarm Copenhagen to attend the U.N. Conference on Climate Change. For Africa, the outcome of the negations is foreshadowed by pronouncements of comic bravado. On September 3, 2009, the Patriarch of African Dictators and head of the “single African negotiating team” on climate change, Meles Zenawi, huffed and puffed about what he and his sidekicks will do if the industrialized countries refuse to comply with his imperial ultimatum. Zenawi roared, “We will use our numbers to deligitimize any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position… We are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threatens to be another rape of our continent.” (Whether African dictators or the industrialized countries are raping the continent is an open question. Witnesses say it is a gang rape situation.)

It was vintage Zenawi with his trademark zero-sum game strategy writ large to the world: “My way or the highway!” It does appear rather preposterous and irrational for the master of the zero-sum game to open negotiations with his longtime benefactors by sticking an ultimatum in their faces. Obviously, the strategic negotiating bottom line is to shakedown the industrialized countries and strong-arm them into forking over billions in carbon blood money; and Zenawi did not mince words: “The key thing for me is that Africa be compensated for the damage caused by global warming. Many institutions have tried to quantify that and they have come up with different figures. The sort of median figure would be in the range of 40 billion USD a year.”

Curiously, we could ask what Zenawi and his brotherhood of dictators would do with the windfall of billions, if they could get it? It is reasonable to assume that they will use it to expand their kleptocracies and cling to power like ticks on a milk cow. They will certainly not use to meet the needs of their people. What they have done with the international aid money and loans they have received over the decades provides compelling extrapolative evidence of what they will do with any windfall of carbon blood money.

As Dambissa Moyo and others have shown, in the last fifty years the West has poured more than a trillion dollars of aid into Africa. Today, over 350 million Africans live on less than USD$1. Real per-capita income in Africa is lower today than it was four decades ago. Aid money and international bank loans have been stolen by African dictators and their henchmen to line their pockets and maintain their huge kleptocracies. In 2002, an African Union study estimated the loss of USD $150bn a year to corruption in Africa, and not without the complicity of the donor countries. Compare this to the USD$22bn the developed countries gave to all of sub-Saharan Africa in 2008. In 2006, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who faced impeachment for corruption and ineptitude, declared at an African civic groups meeting in Addis Ababa that African leaders “have stolen at least $140 billion from their people in the decades since independence.” Ghanaian economist George Ayittey citing U.N. data argues, “These are gross underestimates… $200 billion or 90 percent of the sub-Saharan part of the continent’s gross domestic product was shipped to foreign banks in 1991 alone. Civil wars in Africa cost at least $15 billion annually in lost output, wreckage of infrastructure, and refugee crises… In Zimbabwe, foreign investors have fled the region and more than 4 million Zimbabweans have left the country along with 60,000 physicians and other professionals….” Is it any wonder that Africa today is worse off than it was 50 years ago?

The question is not whether global warming could impact Africa disproportionately, or Africa is entitled to assistance to overcome the effects of greenhouse emissions caused by the industrialized countries. The question is whether African dictators have the moral credibility and standing to make a demand for compensation and what they will do with such compensation if they were to get it. Certainly, the capo African negotiator has as much credibility to demand compensation in Copenhagen as a bank robber has from the bank owners. It has been a notorious fact for at least two decades that Ethiopia is facing environmental disaster. Ethiopia’s forest coverage by the turn of the last century was 40%. By 1987, under the military government, it went down to 5.5%. In 2003, it dropped down to 0.2%. The Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute says Ethiopia loses up to 200,000 hectares of forest every year. Between 1990 and 2005, Ethiopia lost 14.0% of its forest cover (2,114,000 hectares) and 3.6% of its forest and woodland habitat. If the trend continues, it is expected that Ethiopia could lose all of its forest resources in 11 years, by the year 2020. What has Zenawi’s regime done to reverse the problem of deforestation in Ethiopia? They have sold what little arable land is left to the Saudis, the Shiekdoms, the Indians, the South Korea and others with crisp dollar bills looking for fire sales on African lands.

There has been a lot of environmental window dressing and grandstanding in various parts of Africa. In Ethiopia, lofty proclamations have been issued to “improve and enhance the health and quality of life of all Ethiopians”, “control pollution” and facilitate “environmental impact” studies. The “nations, nationalities and peoples” are granted environmental self-determination. There is an Environmental Protection Council which “oversees activities of sectoral agencies and environmental units with respect to environmental all regional states.” The Environmental Protection Agency is “accountable to the Prime Minister.” What have these make-believe bureaucracies done to save Lake Koka, just outside the capital, and the 17,000 people who drink its toxic water daily?

Zenawi and his minions will show up looking for a pot of gold at the end of the Copenhagen rainbow. It does not appear that a bonanza of riches will be awaiting them. If the advance Barcelona negotiations held last month are any indication, a deal does not appear possible in Copenhagen. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Barcelona summit that “global climate negotiations would inevitably drag out after the meeting in Copenhagen ends on Dec. 19.” African dictators deserve our grudging admiration for their sheer tenacity and brazen audacity. After sucking their people dry, they are now moving camp to the greener pastures of climate change to continue their vampiric trade.

The fact of the matter is that while the rest of the world toasts from global warming, Africa is burning down in the fires of dictatorship. While Europeans are fretting about their carbon footprint, Africans are gasping to breathe free under the bootprints of dictators. While Americans are worried about carbon emission trapped in the atmosphere, Africans find themselves trapped in minefields of dictatorship. Handing over carbon blood money to African dictators is like increasing industrial emissions to cut back on global warming. It is the wrong thing to do.

Africa faces an ecological collapse not because of climate change but because of lack of regime change. It is humorously ironic that African dictators who panhandle the industrialized countries for over two-thirds of their budgets should threaten to walk out on them. We know the bravado is nothing more than the “chatter of a beggar’s teeth”. As the bank robber will not walk out of the bank empty handed because of moral outrage over the small amount of money sitting in the vault, we do not expect the band of African negotiators to walk out Copenhagen because they are offered less than what they are asking. We expect to see them making a beeline to the conference door for handouts for there is no such thing as a choosy beggar. We wish them well. Go on, take the money and run….

Regime Change Before Action on Climate Change in Africa!

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.

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