USA-Africa Summit. Part II. Democracy and literacy

USA-Africa Summit White House


In his previous quoted opinion-piece “Africa on the Rise” Nicholas Kristof writes: “All in all, though, Africa is becoming more democratic…”
But the author gives no evidence to back his statement. In such case, as the saying goes, he is entitled to his opinions, not to the facts.  And regarding democracy, in devil is in the details, not in broad proclamations, especially in Africa, .
Let’s survey briefly the continent’s political landscape.

Among other things, democracy means alternation and change in leadership. But we notice that the US-Africa Summit included several presidents  who have ruled their countries since last century, i.e., when Barack Obama was in college. The list includes:

  • Equatorial Guinea, 1979
  • Cameroon, 1982
  • Uganda, 1986
  • Burkina Faso, 1987
  • Sudan, 1993
  • Rwanda, 1994
  • Gambia, 1996
  • Congo, 1997
  • Algeria, 1999
Presidents Barack Obama, Teodoro Obiang Nguema and first lady, Michelle Obama
Presidents Barack Obama, Teodoro Obiang Nguema and First Lady, Michelle Obama

Other countries (DRC, Gabon, Togo) experience the hereditary presidency phenomenon. Others barely escaped it (Guinea, Senegal, Libya). Elsewhere  (Congo, Cameroon, Uganda), presidential sons —not the daughters, by the way— are being groomed to succeed their father.
In Kenya, Barack Obama’s ancestral home, President Uhuru Kenyatta is on trial at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in the post-election violence that left 1,200 dead and displaced 600,000 people.

Cameroon's President Paul Biya and first lady Chantal
Cameroon’s President Paul  and First Lady Chantal Biya

In Burkina Faso and in Uganda, the Constitution is likely to be tweaked to allow another run and win by the sitting presidents.
Thus, having preceded Barack Obama in the presidential function, MM. Yoweri Museveni and Blaise Compaoré will probably be still in office in 2016, after their US counterpart has returned to private life.
That’s unthinkable in America. Popular or unpopular, successful or not, occupants of the White House come and go after a four or eight-year mandate. And life goes on in the U.S.A.
Strong institutions are better than strong men, Obama reminded wisely, in 2011, the visiting Presidents of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Niger.

Presidents Barack Obama and Yoweri Museweni, First Lady Michelle Obama
Presidents Barack Obama and Yoweri Museweni, First Lady Michelle Obama

All that said, many African states hold scheduled polls and enjoy regular and peaceful changes at the helm of the state.
But, how many rotten apples does it take to spoil the barrel?

Notwithstanding the exceptions, post-colonial Africa has been, overall, under the spell of a misguided leadership.

Two-tiered societies

Africa’s current ruling minorities took over at the end of the colonial system beginning in the late 1950s and ending with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990.
Post-colonial leaders have been unable or unwilling to steer the continent toward genuine development. Actually, their very existence means that African societies are two-layered systems. On top, one finds westernized groups (politicians, administrators, professional categories, business groups, health care specialists, educators, etc.). Fluent in the language of the former colonizer, this layer is in power. At the bottom, there are rural majorities, who speak no European languages, and who hold onto the native languages. In general, they do not read or write in their own idioms.

Presidents Barack Obama, Yayhya & Zeinab Jammeh, First Lady Michelle
Presidents Barack Obama, Yayhya & Zeinab Jammeh, First Lady Michelle

Note that even in regions more homogeneous, such as the Maghreb, the above divide persists, sometimes for worse. Hence, the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002) killed hundreds of thousands of peoples. It pitted traditional Islamist groups against the civilian and military elite, more open to Western governmental principles and methods. Likewise, in Egypt, a secularist military officers and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood have been fighting each other since the aftermath of Gamal A. Nasser’s coup in 1954. Although it has known short periods of compromises, the intense rivalry has gone unabated since then. Its milestones include the hanging of the Brotherhood main theoretician, Sayyid Qutb (1966), the lethal assault on President Anwar Sadat (1981), the bloody crackdown against Morsi’s supporters (2013).

Based on the preceding, we can safely say that there are two Africa.

The USA-Africa Washington DC Summit dealt with the official and top one.
Unfortunately, this powerful group has so far answered the question “Am I my brothers/sisters keeper?” negatively.
Specifically, it has failed to eradicate illiteracy as a means of enfranchisement of the majority of citizens across Africa. …

Contrary to Kristof’s statement, Africa will become democratic only when each state has fulfilled its obligation to spread social, functional literacy among citizens.


Whether oral or written, true knowledge is valuable. But the written word has an edge over verbal communication. It gives actual meaning to the motto: knowledge is power. …

Alone, literacy is not a sufficient proof of democracy. However, it sustains the creation of open channels of communication between leaders and citizens. That, in turn, may result in productive social dialog and participatory politics.

Unfortunately, in Africa poverty and illiteracy thwart and impede the emergence of democratic societies.

In politics, literacy reduces the citizens’ dependency on official propaganda and party demagoguery. It empowers them to access diverse sources and dissenting opinions.

Oppressive regimes and systems discourage the emergence of literate citizenry.

During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write.

In the aftermath of the Abolition of slavery, the Jim Crow laws and the Literacy Tests prevented Blacks from acquiring literacy. They established tricky tests aimed at voiding the registration and/or ballot of African-Americans.

In Africa, illiteracy has been the breeding ground for poverty, ignorance and authoritarian rule and dictatorship.

Voters depend on false oral information, rumors, and ethnic affinities in casting their ballot.
Politicians play on ethnic sensibilities to win votes and hang on to power.

Political campaigns are not necessarily based on elaborate programs and relevant socioeconomic projects. On the contrary, they consist in ephemeral tours and rallies, which set the stage for empty promises and stale speeches.

Once the electoral campaign over, the country goes back to business as usual, i.e. the neglect of the vital needs of the peasantry.

This is not new. Back in the 1960s, in his landmark Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon, accurately characterized and predicted the failures of the African petite-bourgeoisie in the chapter “National Consciousness”.

His scathing but accurate portrayal fits the Republic Guinea, then and now, like hand and glove.

Insincere and opportunistic, the regime of President Ahmed Sékou Touré (1958-1984), run successively, but unsuccessfully, two literacy campaigns. The Shah of Iran financed the first operation in 1964. It led to a dead-end. In 1968, Sekou Toure ordered the substitution of French by the local languages in schools, without any preparation whatsoever. Never mind the confusion and chaos created but the abrupt measure in the minds of parents and students. It was fine as long as it allowed him to score a fictional political victory against imperialism.
From 1968 to his death at the Cleveland Heart Clinic in 1984, compilations of Sekou Toure’s ideological speeches replaced literary and philosophy books and manuals in high-school and in university curricula.

Presidents Barack Obama, Alpha & Fanta Kaba Conde, First Lady Michelle
Presidents Barack Obama, Alpha & Fanta Kaba Conde, First Lady Michelle

Meanwhile, personality cult, nepotism, corruption, impunity, human rights violations, torture and death at the Boiro Concentration Camp, did the rest to ruin Guinea.

At his inauguration in 2010, President Alpha Condé —Sekou Touré’s fourth successor— promised the revival of literacy campaigns and support for literacy in the indigenous Mande Nko writing system.

During the first two of his five-year term, Alpha Condé ignored the country’s hinterland. He visited it only on the eve of the legislative elections. People made the connection between his presence and the scheduled poll. Disappointed, some youth booed and heckled him in his electoral stronghold of Kankan. True to his impulsive temperament, he lost control.  Responding angrily, he awkwardly taunted back his challengers.
If President Condé showed reluctance to touch base with the Guinean populations, he was, on the contrary, eager to jet around the world.  In the 2010-2012 period,  he made dozens of trips abroad.
In July 2013, violent ethnic confrontations erupted in the Forest region. More than a hundred people died. Many more sustained serious injuries amid widespread property destruction. Instead of rushing to stop the conflict, comfort mourning families and visit the wounded, he flew to an ECOWAS Summit in Abuja, Nigeria.
Finally, despite the ongoing Ebola crisis in Guinea, he opted for  travelling to Washington, DC. His peers from Liberia and Sierra Leone stayed at home to monitor the epidemic. Yet, it is commonly known and scientifically established that Southeastern Guinea is the epicenter of the virus in West Africa.
Under Mr. Conde’s administration the living standards of the populations have  declined.
Meanwhile, a series of dubious financial dealings have come to light. They include revelations about the licensing schemes for the Simandou’s rich  iron ore deposits. The scandal originated with the late dictator, General Lansana Conté and his fourth wife, Mamadie Touré. But it is still unfolding and it may not spar Guinea’s sitting president.
Bottom line, since 2010, Guineans have learned that they can expect little from (a) M. Condé’s casual and derelict attitude toward them  and, among other things, their unmet literacy needs  (b) his obsession with mining in the land of the so-called “geological scandal.”

Next, AGOA and Africa. Trickle-down economics. Business and philanthropy

Tierno S. Bah

Tierno Siradiou Bah

Author: Tierno Siradiou Bah

Founder and publisher of webAfriqa, the African content portal, comprising:,, webPulaaku,net,,,,,,,, and