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The problem of DRC’s beautiful wife, maize it planted by roadside, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Watching the upheaval in the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent days, one is tempted to invoke the African proverb that “the man who marries a beautiful woman and the farmer who grows maize by the roadside have the same problem.”

The police fired tear gas on Monday to disperse protesters who burned tyres and US and Belgian flags near Western embassies and UN offices in the capital Kinshasa, angry about insecurity in eastern Congo.

The protesters claim the West supports Rwanda, which they and their government accuse of backing the M23 rebellion, whose advance could see them seize the strategic border city of Goma in the east.

This is a new phase of what has become an entrenched tradition of the Congolese oscillating between blaming everyone else but themselves for their problems, and demanding that other people solve these problems, including fighting for them.

In recent years — rightly — the Congolese have railed, then attacked, the long-running and ineffectual United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) for not ending the rebellion in the east.

In late 2022, DRC’s kin in the EAC dispatched the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) to separate the warring sides. Before long, Kinshasa and the people had risen against them, hounding them to go out to the jungle and fight the rebels for them. At the end of last year, EACRF left DRC with its tail between its legs.

Because the Congolese are our brothers and sisters, and we have a responsibility to love them, we also have a duty to tell them uncomfortable truths that will help them overcome.

So, we will return to our proverb. African proverbs are complicated. First, one needs to know that they passed into society through the mouths of men who were not feminists, so too many of them tend to portray women in bad light.

This one paints a heroic hard-working farmer (although it is mostly women, not men, who work the land in Africa) whose maize is stolen by passers-by, in contrast with the beautiful wife who betrays her husband and falls to the charms of other men.

However, African proverbs are also layered, so there is what they say, and the many things they mean. In this case, that people will covet a good thing — a good crop, a beautiful woman and, if we may add, a handsome, enterprising man. The “problem” here is how to keep your maize, beautiful wife, and enterprising husband. If you are better than all the men who hit on her, your beautiful wife will stay faithfully by your side.

Having your wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend run off with someone else can be very hurtful, but if you have a cantankerous truth-telling African aunt or uncle, they will also whisper to you that a partner whom no other man or woman has ever or will ever want is probably not worth having.

In real-world Congo politics, then, the reality is rebels will have friends and allies at home and abroad. Even Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), as despicable as a rebel group can ever be, had friends outside who backed it.

The thing that should terrify everyone is a rebel group that no one wants to touch with a 10-metre pole, both in the day and night. The opposite is also true of rebels fighting to overthrow a government. If it is a government that doesn’t have a single friend even in the cynical world of geopolitics, then it’s probably worse than a cabal of cannibals.

For Congo, what is left is how to solve this “problem”. To stay with the farmer and the beautiful wife, what the Congolese are doing is like the strapping young man in old Africa who spent all his time attacking his parents, relatives, neighbours, and their friends because they failed to give him cattle to pay a bride price for a wife and build a hut for him to live in with her.

The scale of surrender of agency by many Congolese, including the political class and the government, is unsettling.

It’s partly understandable, too. The unusually brutal Belgian rule; the exploitation of all sorts of vultures for its vast minerals lasting over 100 years now; and an unbroken long spell of corrupt and cruel rule, have broken its self-confidence. The way to come to terms with the scale of failure and remain sane is to externalise all the problems to evil forces.

It has led to national paralysis, a belief that they can’t do much on their own to overcome.

DRC’s neighbours to the east, Uganda and Rwanda, offer good lessons. When President Yoweri Museveni took to the bush with his small band of rebels in 1981, the odds were stacked up against them. The British had a big programme with a special police force; the Tanzanian army that helped overthrow military dictator Idi Amin was on the side of the government, and hardy North Koreans soon got into the fight against them. They still won.

The prospects were even worse for the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front when it crossed from Uganda and took to treacherous hills in 1990. Apart from Uganda, it was alone against the world, including one of the world’s superpowers at the time, France, which was in bed with the government in Kigali. They suffered setbacks, picked themselves up, and won.

Congo can win, but first, it will have to plant its own maize and fight its war for its own beautiful wife.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». Twitter@cobbo3

Strictly Personal

Air Peace, capitalism and national interest, By Dakuku Peterside

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Nigerian corporate influence and that of the West continue to collide. The rationale is straightforward: whereas corporate activity in Europe and America is part of their larger local and foreign policy engagement, privately owned enterprises in Nigeria or commercial interests are not part of Nigeria’s foreign policy ecosystem, neither is there a strong culture of government support for privately owned enterprises’ expansion locally and internationally.

The relationship between Nigerian businesses and foreign policy is important to the national interest. When backing domestic Nigerian companies to compete on a worldwide scale, the government should see it as a lever to drive foreign policy, and national strategic interest, promote trade, enhance national security considerations, and minimize distortion in the domestic market as the foreign airlines were doing, boost GDP, create employment opportunities, and optimize corporate returns for the firms.

Admitted nations do not always interfere directly in their companies’ business and commercial dealings, and there are always exceptions. I can cite two areas of exception: military sales by companies because of their strategic implications and are, therefore, part of foreign and diplomatic policy and processes. The second is where the products or routes of a company have implications for foreign policy. Air Peace falls into the second category in the Lagos – London route.

Two events demonstrate an emerging trend that, if not checked, will disincentivize Nigerian firms from competing in the global marketplace. There are other notable examples, but I am using these two examples because they are very recent and ongoing, and they are typological representations of the need for Nigerian government backing and support for local companies that are playing in a very competitive international market dominated by big foreign companies whose governments are using all forms of foreign policies and diplomacy to support and sustain.

The first is Air Peace. It is the only Nigerian-owned aviation company playing globally and checkmating the dominance of foreign airlines. The most recent advance is the commencement of flights on the Lagos – London route. In Nigeria, foreign airlines are well-established and accustomed to a lack of rivalry, yet a free-market economy depends on the existence of competition. Nigeria has significantly larger airline profits per passenger than other comparable African nations. Insufficient competition has resulted in high ticket costs and poor service quality. It is precisely this jinx that Air Peace is attempting to break.

On March 30, 2024, Air Peace reciprocated the lopsided Bilateral Air Service Agreement, BASA, between Nigeria and the United Kingdom when the local airline began direct flight operations from Lagos to Gatwick Airport in London. This elicited several reactions from foreign airlines backed by their various sovereigns because of their strategic interest. A critical response is the commencement of a price war. Before the Air Peace entry, the price of international flight tickets on the Lagos-London route had soared to as much as N3.5 million for the  economy ticket. However, after Air Peace introduced a return economy class ticket priced at N1.2 million, foreign carriers like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Qatar Airways reduced their fares significantly to remain competitive.

In a price war, there is little the government can do. In an open-market competitive situation such as this, our government must not act in a manner that suggests it is antagonistic to foreign players and competitors. There must be an appearance of a level playing field. However, government owes Air Peace protection against foreign competitors backed by their home governments. This is in the overall interest of the Nigerian consumer of goods and services. Competition history in the airspace works where the Consumer Protection Authority in the host country is active. This is almost absent in Nigeria and it is a reason why foreign airlines have been arbitrary in pricing their tickets. Nigerian consumers are often at the mercy of these foreign firms who lack any vista of patriotism and are more inclined to protect the national interest of their governments and countries.

It would not be too much to expect Nigerian companies playing globally to benefit from the protection of the Nigerian government to limit influence peddling by foreign-owned companies. The success of Air Peace should enable a more competitive and sustainable market, allowing domestic players to grow their network and propel Nigeria to the forefront of international aviation.

The second is Proforce, a Nigerian-owned military hardware manufacturing firm active in Rwanda, Chad, Mali, Ghana, Niger, Burkina Faso, and South Sudan. Despite the growing capacity of Proforce in military hardware manufacturing, Nigeria entered two lopsided arrangements with two UAE firms to supply military equipment worth billions of dollars , respectively. Both deals are backed by the UAE government but executed by UAE firms.

These deals on a more extensive web are not unconnected with UAE’s national strategic interest. In pursuit of its strategic national interest, India is pushing Indian firms to supply military equipment to Nigeria. The Nigerian defence equipment market has seen weaker indigenous competitors driven out due to the combination of local manufacturers’ lack of competitive capacity and government patronage of Asian, European, and US firms in the defence equipment manufacturing sector. This is a misnomer and needs to be corrected.

Not only should our government be the primary customer of this firm if its products meet international standards, but it should also support and protect it from the harsh competitive realities of a challenging but strategic market directly linked to our national military procurement ecosystem. The ability to produce military hardware locally is significant to our defence strategy.

This firm and similar companies playing in this strategic defence area must be considered strategic and have a considerable place in Nigeria’s foreign policy calculations. Protecting Nigeria’s interests is the primary reason for our engagement in global diplomacy. The government must deliberately balance national interest with capacity and competence in military hardware purchases. It will not be too much to ask these foreign firms to partner with local companies so we can embed the technology transfer advantages.

Our government must create an environment that enables our local companies to compete globally and ply their trades in various countries. It should be part of the government’s overall economic, strategic growth agenda to identify areas or sectors in which Nigerian companies have a competitive advantage, especially in the sub-region and across Africa and support the companies in these sectors to advance and grow to dominate in  the African region with a view to competing globally. Government support in the form of incentives such as competitive grants ,tax credit for consumers ,low-interest capital, patronage, G2G business, operational support, and diplomatic lobbying, amongst others, will alter the competitive landscape. Governments  and key government agencies in the west retain the services of lobbying firms in pursuit of its strategic interest.

Nigerian firms’ competitiveness on a global scale can only be enhanced by the support of the Nigerian government. Foreign policy interests should be a key driver of Nigerian trade agreements. How does the Nigerian government support private companies to grow and compete globally? Is it intentionally mapping out growth areas and creating opportunities for Nigerian firms to maximize their potential? Is the government at the domestic level removing bottlenecks and impediments to private company growth, allowing a level playing field for these companies to compete with international companies?

Why is the government patronising foreign firms against local firms if their products are of similar value? Why are Nigerian consumers left to the hands of international companies in some sectors without the government actively supporting the growth of local firms to compete in those sectors? These questions merit honest answers. Nigerian national interest must be the driving factor for our foreign policies, which must cover the private sector, just as is the case with most developed countries. The new global capitalism is not a product of accident or chance; the government has choreographed and shaped it by using foreign policies to support and protect local firms competing globally. Nigeria must learn to do the same to build a strong economy with more jobs.

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Strictly Personal

This is chaos, not governance, and we must stop it, By Tee Ngugi

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The following are stories that have dominated mainstream media in recent times. Fake fertiliser and attempts by powerful politicians to kill the story. A nation of bribes, government ministries and corporations where the vice is so routine that it has the semblance of policy. Irregular spending of billions in Nairobi County.

 

Billions are spent in all countries on domestic and foreign travel. Grabbing of land belonging to state corporations, was a scam reminiscent of the Kanu era when even public toilets would be grabbed. Crisis in the health and education sectors.

 

Tribalism in hiring for state jobs. Return of construction in riparian lands and natural waterways. Relocation of major businesses because of high cost of power and heavy taxation. A tax regime that is so punitive, it squeezes life out of small businesses. Etc, ad nauseam.

 

To be fair, these stories of thievery, mismanagement, negligence, incompetence and greed have been present in all administrations since independence.

 

However, instead of the cynically-named “mama mboga” government reversing this gradual slide towards state failure, it is fuelling it.

 

Alternately, it’s campaigning for 2027 or gallivanting all over the world, evoking the legend of Emperor Nero playing the violin as Rome burned.

 

A government is run based on strict adherence to policies and laws. It appoints the most competent personnel, irrespective of tribe, to run efficient departments which have clear-cut goals.

 

It aligns education to its national vision. Its strategies to achieve food security should be driven by the best brains and guided by innovative policies. It enacts policies that attract investment and incentivize building of businesses. It treats any kind of thievery or negligence as sabotage.

 

Government is not a political party. Government officials should have nothing to do with political party matters. They should be so engaged in their government duties that they literally would not have time for party issues. Government jobs should not be used to reward girlfriends and cronies.

 

Government is exhausting work undertaken because of a passion to transform lives, not for the trappings of power. Government is not endless campaigning to win the next election. To his credit, Mwai Kibaki left party matters alone until he had to run for re-election.

 

We have corrupted the meaning of government. We have parliamentarians beholden to their tribes, not to ideas.

 

We have incompetent and corrupt judges. We have a civil service where you bribe to be served. Police take bribes to allow death traps on our roads. We have urban planners who plan nothing except how to line their pockets. We have regulatory agencies that regulate nothing, including the intake of their fat stomachs.

 

We have advisers who advise on which tenders should go to whom. There is no central organising ethos at the heart of government. There is no sense of national purpose. We have flurries of national activities, policies, legislation, appointments which don’t lead to meaningful growth. We just run on the same spot.

 

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

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