The Chile Story: A lesson for African Leaders

The Chile Story; a Lesson for African Leaders

Some years back, I fell in love with a British TV program where (as usual) some rich, old money, family were bumbling through their daily lives trying to figure out what to do to remain relevant in society. What I found interesting was the fact that while the master and mistresses of the house had their servants and chambermaids, the butler (one of the servant staff) had his own servants too. In effect, you have the master; the servants, and servants to the servants. It kind of reminded me of how nations are classified in today’s world; developed, developing, and Third Word. One could easily figure out who is serving whom.

On December 21, as I was making my way to work, I listened to a news report that Chile (not China, Brazil, or India) will soon move up the ladder to the developed nations’ class in a few months. I almost ran off the road. My first question was; how did this happen? To many of us, Chile is instantly associated with Augusto Pinochet, the murderous, iron-fisted dictator who ran the country from 1974 to 1990; leaving a trail of dead and missing bodies 100-mile long. Though, as with all dictators eventually, he died a disgraceful death in December of 2006, he left a trail of economic success story yet unmatched by any of his successors. The keys to Chile’s impending ascent to the ranks of developed nations are; (1) love for the country; (2) visionary leadership; (3) a development plan; (4) determination to implement the plan and, (5) continuity, regardless of who is in government. The most important of all these is love for the country.

Of all the South and Central American countries, I had expected Argentina and Brazil to be the first to emerge from the developing nation’s status, followed by Venezuela; imagine my surprise when I listened to the news report. What does make a developed nation? If memory serves me right, they include a measure of the following; high GDP, industrialization (dominance by tertiary and quaternary sectors of industry), and Human Development Index (literacy rate, life expectancy, per capita income). As one might expect, of all the countries on either the UN list, OECD list, the IMF list, or the FTSE list, not a single African country met the criteria, including South Africa and Botswana. One consolation for Africa, Equatorial Guinea made the World Bank’s high income list. Yet, that has not translated into marked improvement in their human development index.

Why are African countries consistently lagging behind other parts of the world in development? The consensus answer is always bad leadership, and Neo –Colonialism. Is it really? There is a huge difference between bad leadership and the five key essential elements of national development listed earlier. Yes, Africa has many dictators, so does a lot of other countries; yes we have many corrupt government officials, but so do many other countries. Developed nations do not want Africa to catch up with them; really? When you ask them, they complain that Africa does not want to catch up; we prefer to remain a beggar nation asking for handouts. Not quite true either. So, where lays the truth? Let us look at dictatorships in other countries, and the results.

China is run by a dictatorship; the difference is that it is not ruled by the same person for ages, but by that singular leadership structure put in place by Chairman Mao and his band of revolutionaries. What sets China apart from African-style dictatorship is that while Chinese rulers have a destination and a plan to get there, African dictators do not. The same thing could be said of Stalin in Russia, and Mussolini in Italy. Today, we refer to them as dictators and murderers of their people; yet, through their bloodied eyes, they saw far enough into the future where they want their country to be, and they laid the foundations to get there. Some might claim the Marshall Plan was the key for Italy; I ask you: would a Marshall Plan do it for Africa, without the people’s will to see to its success? When Ian Smith was ruling the then Rhodesia that country was on a path to economic, industrial, and social greatness. The only negative (a major one at that), was the government’s apartheid policies. In 1980, when Robert Mugabe took over at the helms, all the developmental structures were already in place. Look at Zimbabwe today, reduced to a beggar nation, unable to even feed its people. Everything has collapsed, and about six million of its citizens are on exile to neighboring countries; yet Mugabe has not seen anything wrong in the 29 years he has been in power. All he does is rail against imagined European and American conspiracy. As for Namibia, after the exit of the White man in 1990, the jury is still out.

Another country which was transformed by a dictator is Malaysia. Mahathir Bin Mohamad was Prime Minister for 22 years, from 1981 to 2003. Under his leadership, modern Malaysia emerged as a regional financial, communications, and manufacturing hub. He drew up series of “Malaysia Plans” which set out middle-term goals and objectives over his 22-year reign, and today that country is the largest economy in Southeast Asia. In comparison, Omar Bongo was in charge of little Congo with all the oil money, yet when he died this year, he left his people poorer than he met them. Same goes for the late Mobutu, Kerekou, Siad Barre, etc. There are many other dictators spread all over the continent who give one excuse, or the other, as to why their countries take two steps backwards, for every one forward.

While not discounting the effects of inter-tribal strife and frequent military interventions on development, the fact remains that, regardless of who is in power, continuity is one of the keys of progressive development. So, excuses of ethnic wars and military coups do not necessarily stop development programs, as long as the leadership is committed to continuing with the progressive plans of its predecessor. Many African leaders have visions while they are still in the jungle trying to oust the colonial administration; once that singular objective is achieved, the corrupt effects of power cloud their visions. They see real and imaginary enemies everywhere, angling to dethrone them from their palaces; and they spend years and huge amounts of resources fighting these imaginary enemies, at the expense of the ordinary citizen. Look at Uganda, Egypt, and Libya today; there has not been much progress from when the current leaders took power to what they are today.

For those African leaders who prefer to lay the blame of their countries’ woes on European feet, a comment I heard on another BBC TV program gives an insight on the frustration of Europeans about African leaders. This was on an episode of the program MI-5, where the agencies were concerned about the genocidal motives of this imaginary African president for pushing for some economic treaty with the West, and brought their concerns to the British Foreign Secretary who was organizing the talks. Hear him; “we must have this treaty! That continent is nothing but an economic albatross hanging around our neck, with a bunch of genocidal maniacs all over the place. The Prime Minister wants this treaty, and he must have it”. The emphasis is on “a bunch of genocidal maniacs”; that is truly how they perceive most of Africa’s leaders, and we seem to do our most to buttress that perception. The West had, long ago, given up on making Africa better, and had realized that it is beneficial to play along with whoever is in charge in the countries, than trying to change him/her.

African countries’ dominant economic policy of import substitution seems to be another impediment to growth and development. To the leaders, setting tariffs too high will keep out imports and promote domestic producers of imported substitutes. This may sound ideal on paper except that, realistically, you are propping up inefficient domestic producers who charge consumers high prices for substandard goods. Secondly, this practice breeds corruption and scarcity, due to lack of alternatives. This brings to mind the former Soviet Union where the store shelves were always empty. If the idea was to force foreign exporters to invest in country through joint ventures, buying existing production facilities, or building a new one from scratch, the lack of adequate basic infrastructures, security, and pro-business legal framework makes such direct foreign investment, and attendant technology transfer, impossible. Business is all about profits, and no one wants to invest in an environment of uncertainty and insecurity.

While no one expects an African country to move from “developing” status to one of “developed” any time soon, there is hope that some countries like South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola will eventually move up from Third World status to that of developing nations. This is dependent upon their leaders maintaining a consistent level of love, vision, and development plan for their countries, and a commitment to selfless service. The hope is that with one or two African countries setting good leadership examples, and with proof of success, others might decide to discard their dictatorial and visionless attitudes to power and follow suit. The story of Chile should serve as a source of encouragement to such progressive African leaders.


Felix Oti
Oti & Associates
Arlington, Texas USA

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Comment by Ogba on January 5, 2010 at 5:43am
Who underdeveloped Africa?We all know that the fact to keep Africa bound is the direct result of not only conflicting ideologies but self serving leaders with no thought whatsoever for their people.I know that Nigeria needs a strong hand maybe like that of Pinochet to stir her right but if the republic written centuries back is anything to go by would Nigeria be called a failed republic.

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