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How corruption keeps Africa in the dark

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TO mark the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Energy for Africa Week, we are publishing their first commissioned paper ‘Heart of Darkness: Why energy poverty is a security issue’ in five parts. It is a deeply personal view of the problems of energy access in sub-Saharan Africa by journalist Geoff Hill. Today’s second instalment refutes the idea of Africa as a hot continent.

It was 4pm on Friday June 11, 2010, as the first game of the FIFA World Cup got under way at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.

With a population of around eight million, the city is large by any standard. This makes it a draw not only for rural South Africans looking for a job, but also for migrants from Congo, Zimbabwe, even Nigeria. Many make a living as street vendors. They stand at intersections, especially at traffic lights – known here as ‘robots’ – selling all kinds of goods, from fruit and sweets to hats, belts and blankets. When it’s cold they have firewood, and in the heat of December, your vendor carries a portable cool-box, packed with colas and other drinks and, as you wait for the robot to change, he waves a glistening can at your window. Drink, money, change: the sale takes a few seconds and, when the light turns green, hawkers run for the traffic island and wait for the red.

But this was Jo’burg in winter and, at 5,700 feet above sea level and well below the tropics, it can snow in the city and temperatures overnight slip below freezing. There’s even a ski lodge in the mountains. That Friday of the first game of the World Cup, a wind from the east made an afternoon temperature of 14°C (57°F) feel colder. Many of the fans had come from Europe and the Americas dressed for safari, and vendors made a killing with blankets. At hotels, intersections and along the road to the stadium, black men and women in their early 20s sold duvets and throws. Demand was huge, the mark-up was crazy, but tourists stayed warm and, for one day at least, the poor made good.

Much of east and southern Africa lies on a plateau that rises quickly from the coast. Cities were founded during the colonial era, when white bwanas and their memsahibs wanted to live away from the heat of the lowlands. Of the world’s 30 highest capitals, half are in Africa. Just one, Andorra, is in Europe.

These new settlements would have been agreeable places to live. Outside the Sahara or Kalahari – desert areas with little rain – Africa is well watered, and pioneers didn’t have to set up along the rivers as in parts of Australia and the US. But at certain times of year, the climate would have been less pleasant. In the Oscar-winning film Out of Africa, Karen Blixen sits at the fireplace telling stories to her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, and his friend Berkeley Cole. Why at the fire? Because Nairobi is Swahili for ‘cold water’ and at almost 6,000 feet, winters are chilly. In 2017, it snowed in the city. Similarly, in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, also known as ‘the mountain kingdom’, temperatures have been known to touch -12˚C (10.4˚F).

So how do people stay warm? The same way they cook and light their homes: with firewood. In many of these cities, poverty is rife.

In most African capitals, only around a third of people have electricity. In Burundi, the figure is just 7.6 per cent. Look at the world’s worst ten countries for access to electricity and are all in Africa. Countries in Africa take 41 of the bottom 50 places. South Africa is almost the only country on the continent with a majority connected to the grid. Yet across Africa there are rivers to dam for hydro and the sun shines for solar. Mozambique has offshore oil and gas, and Africa enjoys some of the world’s richest coal reserves.

Talk to activists from some environmental groups, and it’s all the fault of others. Europe underdeveloped Africa in the colonial area, loans are hard to get, aid has been cut and the arms industry sells weapons to leaders who go to war instead of serving their people. There’s truth in this. But how then have Malaysians, with the same colonial experience and a civil war at independence, managed to electrify all homes in a country of more than 800 islands? Canada has a population of 30million and a land area the size of Europe, yet the most remote hamlet has power.

So what are the factors that divide the world into light and
dark?

There are places where we can measure freedom and prosperity across the same ethnic group divided only by politics. For example, since 1948, Korea has been split into a communist North and capitalist South. The countries are of similar size and both suffered under one of the most oppressive colonial regimes after Japan occupied the peninsula in 1910, a period that ended only after the surrender to the United States in 1945. Like Germany, the country was shared among the allies at the end of World War II and it was the Russian zone that became North Korea. Today, the North remains a dictatorship, with only one in three homes on the grid. In the democratic South, electrification is total. South Korea is the world’s 11th largest economy, with a GDP of $1.6trillion, larger than Russia or Australia. Meanwhile, North Korea’s GDP is less than two per cent of the level enjoyed by its neighbour.

Another example is the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, landing point of Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World. Hispaniola is divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The first has a long history of dictatorship and is still far from what one might consider a democracy. The ‘Dom Rep’, as it’s termed, has free elections and a liberal press. Haiti has a paltry $6billion per year in GDP, somewhat smaller than the city of Coventry. Its neighbour has a vibrant economy and is one of the fastest-growing holiday spots in the world. GDP is more than ten times larger, at $75billion. And while the Dom Rep has everyone on the grid, in Haiti only 39 per cent have power.

There are similar examples in Africa. Democratic Botswana exports some of the coal that also provides most of its power. Two-thirds of homes are on the grid. Next door is Angola, Africa’s second-largest oil producer, but a tyranny in one form or another since independence from Portugal in 1974, and where six out of ten people have no lights.

Democratic Kenya will achieve full access to electricity within the next decade. Compare that with just 26 per cent in Uganda, where Yoweri Museveni has ruled since 1986, censoring the press and rigging elections. Tanzania is little better, governed by the same party since independence from Britain in 1961.

It’s not just about kilowatts. By the end of World War ll, Germany had been bombed almost to oblivion. It was then divided into the Bundesrepublik, better known as West Germany, and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR, under Soviet control. At reunification in 1990, the DDR had an annual GDP of just $150billion. West Germany was ten times that, the world’s fourth-largest economy. Thirty years on, the east still languishes, with higher rates of poverty and unemployment.

It’s fair to say that Africa is now on the path to freedom and democracy, if faltering in countries such as Zambia, Gabon and Djibouti, whose rulers believe democracy is okay only if they win the vote. But look at the countries where one party (sometimes renamed) has been in power for 30 years or more.

You can therefore make a strong case that democracy and freedom are key factors in driving full access to electricity. But what about dictatorships that have 100 per cent of their people on the grid? There are many, including China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Egypt and Belarus. In 1994, ahead of the change to democratic rule, the all-white National Party had run South Africa since 1946, but the country produced more electricity than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa combined.

So what is now holding Africa back? Some have put it down to the legacy of colonialism, but this argument doesn’t hold up on examination. Onan Akoragye is a Ugandan journalist and edits an online magazine in the capital, Kampala:

‘I always bash this notion that Africa is poor because of colonisation . . . It’s been over 50 years since these guys left Africa. And a country like India whose GDP is fifth in the world was colonised about the same time as Africa.

‘Singapore and South Korea had about the same GDP as most African countries at the time of independence, but they have since developed into great economies.’

The problem, according to Akoragye, is more to do with Africa’s political culture:

‘Our political way of life sucks! Everything bad about our economies revolves around stinking bad politics. Wars, coups, corruption, greed, patronage and impunity.’

Others agree. Dr Sylvanus Ayeni is a Nigerian neurosurgeon, now retired and living near Washington DC. His book Rescue Thyself details the failure of African governments to serve their peoples.

‘Where countries have a plan for the future, and leaders look beyond their own pockets, you find development. Taiwan and Singapore both went through more than 30 years of hardline rule before they opened up, yet they were economic miracles. Botswana has been ruled by the same party since independence in 1966, and it has the highest per-capita income in Africa.

‘Sadly, many of our rulers have blended dictatorship with self-enrichment. Citizens who complain are seen as traitors and learn that it’s safer to keep quiet. That’s why in my own country, after 60 years of independence – and billions in oil sales and foreign aid – homes and shops rely on generators for electricity.’

That self-enrichment has involved the wholesale looting of foreign aid. Dr Ayeni has done a calculation of money given to the continent since 1960:

‘In the past half-century, America alone has sent more than a trillion dollars in aid to Africa and I challenge you to find where it’s gone. Add to this the billions from France, Britain, Australia and soft loans from China and you see the tragedy.  Money blown on palaces, private jets and outright theft. As an African I’m sad to say this is the truth of my homeland.’

This corruption is centred on state-owned enterprises, says Dr Ayeni:

‘Take the example of airlines. Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi, Congo and many others have lost their national carriers after propping them up for years. On some, it was difficult to buy a seat in first class because of ministers and their families who travelled free or at a discount.’

Discounted air tickets is petty corruption, without wider implications, but once you get into the electricity sector, these can be serious. Dr Ayeni explains that jobs are often given to those with connections to the ruling party, even where they lack the skills.

‘South Africa has one of the world’s most robust democracies, yet the state-owned power monopoly runs at a loss and the press is forever breaking stories on jobs for cronies or fraudulent tenders. And it’s the same picture across much of Africa.’

It’s small wonder, then, that South Africa’s electricity supply is increasingly unreliable.

As I write this, it’s summer across much of Africa. Vendors keep water-bottles on hand, and spend up to 12 hours on the baking tar at robots, selling drinks and other wares. There’s no talk of another World Cup, but winter will come back, temperatures will fall and so will the trees. Vendors will sell firewood in bags of a dozen logs, each the length of your forearm. It takes two bags to keep a family warm for one night. Along the roads, we’ll see barrows and ‘borrowed’ trolleys from supermarkets carrying timber. Another cold spell, another forest gone. Others will sell blankets, not at the profit they made from the soccer fans, but enough to get by and, with luck, feed the meter to keep the lights on.

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Geoff Hill
Geoff Hill is a Zimbabwean writer working across Africa. Formerly special reports manager for Rupert Murdoch's flagship paper, the Australian, first non-American to win a John Steinbeck Award and author of the bestselling The Battle for Zimbabwe. A life-long conservationist, he has written extensively about the environment.

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