‘In Africa, those who benefitted from democracy abuse it most’
Alhaji Kandeh Yumkella is a Sierra Leone presidential candidate on the platform of National Grand Coalition Party. The 58-year old was erstwhile chairman of UN-Energy and a two-term former Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). In this interview with Kehinde Olatunji, he spoke extensively on why democracy is not working in Africa and the importance of youths, involvement in governance for development.
There is an ongoing debate in the continent that no matter how good a leader is, if the structure of government is not okay, nothing will work. What is your reaction to this?
Obama’s statement on Africa’s need for strong institutions as against strong men is in context. He said that because he was concerned that Africa focus more on having a very powerful president, so he was cautioning them that strong institutions are needed for governance to work well. But what Obasanjo said is also true, we need both strong institutions and strong men; these strong men should be those who are not desperate for power however bold enough to help the strong institutions to function well. This is because if you have weak leaders the first thing they do is to undermine key institutions like security, education and economics. Etc. You need a very strong efficient technocratic institution; this is what is typical of any developmental states. We need both strong institutions and strong men.
Who changes the system, who impact on the structure, is it the leadership or a change in the system of governance?
In our context of very poor undeveloped countries with weak institutions there is need for visionary good leaders who have spiritual, intellectual and emotional fortitude to build good and credible institutions. Secondly, we need them to resist those factors that will cause our countries and economies to fail. In any political system you will always have vested interest, people interested in their own narrow area of economic or political concern but leaders who can resist these tendencies are needed because whenever there is chaos and bad governance there are some set of people who are benefitting and becoming multi millionaires at the expense of the masses. It is difficult to sequence, but what is fundamental is solid visionary leadership, even when there are strong institutions but more so when this is lacking. The leader must believe in something much greater than himself, something that is fundamental; focusing on the people, building institution that will survive him for the prosperity of the nation, building democratic processes that some of his supporters may not like but are beneficial to the country.
You spoke about democratic processes but why is democracy not working in Africa?
In every nation those who are in power never want to leave it, they never want to loose their influence but this can be curtailed when there are institutions and systems that make them understand there are time limits. In my country we have time limit but the current regime have done everything to self perpetuate and now they are determined that they must still hold on. They started talking about third term two years ago but that did not work, Ebola struck, and now they have started talking about more time, what they are determined to do which they are already saying is that they want to hold on to power for more years. Some of this is because of the fear of what they have done wrong, so it comes to that narrow self-interest of protection rather than the bigger interest of the nation. In fact, sometimes it is those leaders who benefitted from democracy that abused it the most.
For instance, in my country they use the constitution to go after people they don’t like, they did it to our former vice president and now they are after me as well, they are after me on all kinds of issues including dual citizenship when it is just four weeks to election and I have given it up because the constitution is clear. A President cannot be loyal to two nations so I gave it up voluntarily yet they are not satisfied, and this is because they fear that change will come, they fear that some of the blatant things they have done will be exposed so they want to hold on to power for more years to cover those things. For instance, a road that should cost 800, 000 dollars per kilometer they claim it is four million dollars, yet they will not build better schools. 70 per cent of our youths are unemployed but they tell everybody the nation is great, ‘we build roads’ but we tell them that they charge over four times more for the roads than normal; they are stealing from the people. When the country was plagued with Ebola; our Auditor General, British Institutions and Red Cross documented that they stole 14 million dollars when their people were dying. People don’t want this truth to be heard, they become super rich over night at the expense of the common man. But people like me must resist, that is why we are encouraging the youths to engage, because their future is being mortgaged and they are denied the prosperity young people deserve.
For leaders who do not want to leave power, how do you democratically remove them without being violent?
Of course, we have a very good movement, and party which is the National Grand Coalition. It is a coalition of a lot of youths and we are fighting for them, our interest in politics is about them. We have an interest in the next generation. 70 per cent of our population is below 30 years old. They need jobs. We have about seven million youths, 70 per cent of them are unemployed, 70 per cent of the population lives below two dollars a day, meanwhile, the country has all the minerals and wealth; these youths deserve a better future so we make sure our party gives rooms to the youths to be counselors, parliamentarians and so on. It is these young ones that will resist any attempt to deny them their future, we will resist rigging, and we are building structures that we have copied from other countries to make sure that they do not rig. The National Electoral Commission is determined to prevent rigging and they have our full support. So we are doing what we can, those that want to manipulate this election should know that people power works. Our youths know how much they have suffered, they know they don’t have jobs; they are ready to resist any attempt to rig. This regime has been the biggest beneficiary of democracy in our country’s history, given the tolerance of the last regime and support of the international community, they were elected into office. But what they have done is to cause civil war and it was these was the same political party who brought the civil war they are doing the same thing again. We will resist this.
In this part of the world there is a ‘not too young to run’ hash tag where the young people are encouraged to come into governance. Do you think Africa will be better with the younger leaders?
I will not say it will be better or worse but what I know and that is what I have preached back home is that young people should engage now, not tomorrow. They should engage for every position they qualify for, if a 31 years old can be a Prime Minster of Austria where I lived for 17 years, a 31 year old in Africa is qualified to be a Parliamentarian, if a 38years old can run for president in the great France and become president then 38 years old in Africa must prepare themselves that by the time they are forty they qualify to be president of their republic. This is because the future is about them not about old folks like me, but we have an obligation to create an environment that allows them to unleash their entrepreneurship and leadership skills. I say to young people if you don’t demand it you will not get it. In my political party we have given alots of young men symbols from counselor level all the way to parliamentarian we believe that this will prepare them for the greater task ahead.
I have been to several constituencies in the most populous areas, most of our candidates are below 40 and that is what I wanted, this movement is about the youths it is not about the older generation. It is about the younger generation in order for them to have better lives than I did. I had the best education in my country 40 years ago; it made me what I am today, our youths today cannot boast of 30 per cent of that so I told them, join me to create your future however the community has to be sure that you are credible.
Do you think the continent will survive without the older generation?
I usually tell the young people not to dismiss the older ones because experience has to be earned. In china and other places, they are very clever because they have old leaders but they always have with them the best young technocratic support team and every ten years they change their leadership along the old spectrum but they are always cultivating the next levels of leaders, so we Africans especially the older ones must have the courage to do leadership succession, we must prepare the next generation quick, not when we are tired we need them now that we are in leadership, in fact we should be ready to serve them. I became a minister at 33, I was a young director in the United Nation at 36 so who says young African cannot aspire to be great, and they should not only aspire to be great but also aspire to want their nation great. When your nation is great automatically you and your children will live better and so that is why I encourage the youths all across Africa that you must take charge of your future, don’t wait, don’t ask, as long as you qualify by the laws, step forward to lead your communities, step forward to be parliamentarian otherwise with the status quo you suffer more.
Some years ago Nigerians including Pat Utomi and Pauline Taleng travelled to Malaysia for oil palm workshop but there have been non-implementation, what do have to say about this?
I regret that when we see best practices that are making other countries transformed or achieve what we call structural changing in their economies somehow we fail to implement. Former president Obasanjo said the was told by one of the European leaders, that “if you see something you do well, keep doing it well and expanding it.” Nigeria was once a major producer of oil palm, cocoa, groundnut why do we have to leave it simply because we discovered oil, in fact what the Malaysian did even when they discovered gas is that they use their petroleum company to develop other sectors particularly agriculture so they have agriculture led industrialization. They did not ignore agriculture because they discovered gas; they used petroleum money to build the roads, resort centres, support agriculture, have finance in the banks and get the private sector to expand agriculture production but they move further to add value; value addition creating new products out of their agriculture but they didn’t stop there they moved into IT, electronics and others. What I am saying is that there is need to look around, you don’t have to look far sometimes, you can look across to Cote devoir, Senegal, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia they are doing very well, these are examples we can learn from. We should not be too arrogant to say I cannot learn from my African brother but some of them are doing extremely well. There are things we can learn from each other.
Can you speak more on the Garden of Eden syndrome?
The Garden of Eden syndrome says that people typically because they have so much refuse to be creative. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve everything. Some people use it now in economics or political economics to say because Africa has so much; we have a lot of food, water, minerals we are refusing to be creative. We should not let that syndrome keep us down. In fact we should use what God has given us to help our communities and make the economy even grow better otherwise we will be sinning as well. God gave dominion to us over plants and animals but it is for us to grow them, make them flourish and make more people benefit. That is why I said we should avoid the Garden of Eden syndrome. If we have a lot it doesn’t mean we should not work hard and be creative. In fact, it is the opposite, we should work even harder. The scripture says to him that has more will be given.
Can you also speak on the Golden triangle?
I have always talked about it in Nigeria conferences. The golden triangle starts in Kano, if you have high-speed rail link to take goods and services from Kano to Lagos that is one line. The other line goes from Lagos to Port Harcourt and Calabar. The third line goes from Calabar to Kano.
It is like a triangle, when you look at what places the rail line will touch, you will see that the one from Calabar will touch Benue State the bread basket of Nigeria. If you look at the one coming down, it will touch Zaria, Kaduna coming down to Lagos then you can have inter connection. You can even split the triangle into two. You can have another rail from Makurdi straight down to Lagos. Around those big states you have growth post that is what the Asian have done successfully. When China open up they didn’t say we are going to develop all of china at the same time, they chose the location that can be developed quickly in 10 years, so they creates more wealth and income that they can use elsewhere and today China is expanding fast but they didn’t start everywhere at the same time.
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