How the Asian Tiger Outran the African Lion…

A lion and A tiger Fighting

A little over a century ago Africa and Asia were comparable enough to be clubbed together as the underdeveloped South in the face of the developed North. Clearly, a lot has changed since.

Reading a speech delivered by the World Bank’s Chief here in Dar Es Salaam, I found myself in deep reflection.

In the middle of heaping praise on President Magufuli’s unorthodox yet transformative methods and Nyerere’s unique legacy, he mentions the success of South Korea, which had an economy comparable to that of Kenya and Ghana a little over a half a century ago but today can easily give aid to both; in a way contradicting himself.

This clearly begs the question of where exactly Mwalimu Nyerere went right (to merit such a plug) in as much as he clearly went wrong (because Tanzania is nowhere near being South Korea)?

This got me thinking - what advantage could South Korea have had then over us? Better yet what did all the States that managed to transform their fortunes over the last 50years or so have in common that African States south of the Sahara and North of South Africa didn’t have 50years ago?

Only one answer stands out clearly in my head now - we didn’t have Nation States; we just had boarders that were simply drawn on paper and handed to us.

Unlike Africa, Asia (and even the Arab world) had States that created governments to navigate through the changing terrain that characterizes the populous and its interests without undermining the unity and sovereignty that is core to the idea of State. These States were often the result of the dominance of one social/ ethnic group or a grouping of several social/ethnic groups that either forced (by way @of war and winner takes all) or forged (by way of diplomacy and all win taking parts) their unity resulting in a shared identity that informed their culture/heritage over time.

The State is the symbol of this resulting unity and sovereignty and the apparatus required to not only earn it but more importantly to protect it from external forces.

Thus, the primary purpose of the State is to ensure Government protects it [State] from external threats that may undermine its dominance. Overtime, this usually results into a high concentration of power amongst the ruling elite creating a sub class or special ‘interest’ group otherwise known as the ruling class/ establishment that isolates itself from the broader identity of the State consequently pitting it (the establishment class) against the other interest groups it was originally suppose to manage on behalf of the State.

As a result, in order for the State to avoid isolating itself, it also ‘needs’ Government to stay relevant by reflecting the changing ‘interests’ of the populous. The most effective way of doing this is through use a political party machinery while keeping in ‘state’ the values that are core to their unity and sovereignty using state apparatus.

Consequently most political systems are a result of the circumstance of the people in relation to the State often represented by the ‘establishment’; so you either have pro establishment systems (like ours) and/ or anti establishment systems (like that of the USA) but at the end all these systems have one thing in common: they stay true to the State encapsulated in a constitution that symbolically does not change as a result but instead is just amended. Basically they don’t pull out the heart in order to repair it.

So in as much as governments were allowed to change to reflect the changes in the populous, the State was not. The concept of country before self is rooted in this truth. The State ensures that country is always put first even if it undermines the wants of some of the people especially where national security is concerned.

Governments then have the challenge of balancing between two, often conflicting, ends: the dominance of State and its relevance to the populous.

This is the single most distinct advantage Asia had - they didn’t have to agree on ‘who’ they were fighting for (this is a State issue); they just had to agree on what they were fighting for (this a Governance issue). And we can all attest to the fact that when you agree on who you are fighting for, then it is that much easier to agree on what you are fighting for. This nurtured stability in focus and direction, a pre requisite for development of anything overtime, let alone an economy.

This ‘stability’ in identity, I believe, is the backdrop that has fostered the dramatic strides in development witnessed in Asia and many other parts of the world where strong States existed when compared to Africa where the idea of Nation State was still in its formative stages.

Africa, distracted by the presence of an external force, was so busy fighting against a shared and evident enemy, forgot that, apart from the inherited boarders, they had nothing that brought them together (the ‘who’) that they were willing to fight for in order for them to stay together after the ‘enemy’ was ousted.

Yet, they went on to form Governments with verve and flair, often and at best representing the varying/divisive interests of the populous as opposed to shared values of a State as these didn’t really exist. So as interests changed so did Government’s. And as Governments changed divisions became more entrenched and in some instances formed the premise for party mobilization.  As a result, without the stability of the State in the background some of these changes in Government went the extreme of undermining the core premise of ‘State’ which is fostering peace, unity and prosperity of all its people.

Mwalimu may have been the exception.

While many of his peers formed Government’s representing political interests without a thought for fostering or filling this State vacuum, Mwalimu formed a Government representing purely the interests of a State. He understood, I believe, that the State was the spiritual epicenter of the people it brought together and protected often after bloodshed and struggle not the Government per se. He was not naive to the fact that unity was either forged (by diplomacy) or forced (by war) but was never an option as it was the single most critical line of defense against external threats - remember united we stand divided we fall.

Mwalimu opted to forge a Nation State. He meticulously entertained the various colors of our people using storytelling, jiving, folklore, the works. This, coupled with his own moral authority, achieved over years of consistently representing (by way of word and deed) the interests of the masses united by their poverty; positioned him as the spiritual epicenter of the State earning him the honorary title of Founding Father of the State (giving Tanzania the critical ‘who’ in guiding us through deciding on the ‘what’).

For this reason, I believe, he invested in a system that removed State from representing and/ or being informed by vying interests by giving the Presidency of the Republic three hats: Head of State, Head of Government and Head of Party. The State is a symbol of our unity and sovereignty in the face of external and internal threats. The Government is the custodian of the State and people in managing the affairs of its people to enable their prosperity consequently keeping the State in state. The Party is the tool of choice for engaging the people. This would explain why Mwalimu’s CCM was more relevant than it was dominant as its seeds were planted in the grassroots compared to the CCM of today.

After 25years of being in power, he had forged a ‘State’ so powerful both in theory and practice that he put it to the test in what was an unprecedented move for an African at the time; Mwalimu stepped down to allow way for a new Head of Government. But appreciating the risks of Government abusing State apparatus and undermining the balance required between State dominance and State relevance, he leveraged his stature as Head of State (in the minds of a generation he molded and state apparatus he still wielded power over) and retained his position as Head of Party. This gave Mwalimu the leverage needed to keep the Government in check, if not, in balance when it comes to dominance and relevance. At some point when Mwalimu saw that the Government was failing to maintain this balance, he weighed in as the incumbent /spiritual Head of State to protect the unity of the people and used his seat as Head of Party to force his party to reconnect with a changing populous; in the process fostering the significant change in Government to reflect changing interests without undermining the State.

Unfortunately, though, what many Tanzanians may not even appreciate is that Mwalimu, as Father of the Nation, as was evidenced then and continues to manifest itself every time our beautiful Nation falls in harms way, informs the spiritual epicenter that gives validity to the State in the Tanzanian context. Like the founding fathers of the United States of America or the Royal lineage of the United Kingdom, he forms the premise for the founding values that inform the ‘who’ we are as a people in the face of often divisive interests of the populous. In the absence of Mwalimu Nyerere, all we are left with are our divisions.

Asian counties, to a larger extent, have always stayed true to the premise that informed their unity and sovereignty. Learning from Japan, progress and development can live hand in hand with tradition. The power of the State in the face of changing interests was most recently demonstrated in the USA, when Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by a staggering margin of 2m votes but Donald Trump won the Presidency by way of electoral colleges. Interestingly, Clinton didn’t leverage this typically populous advantage and quickly conceded and disappeared into the backwaters of politics allowing trump the space to be President; clearly putting country before self. Given Trumps many apparent flaws she could have invested in this agenda but didn’t. In Africa, this would not have been the case. Because State is used interchangeably with Government and political interests often trump (couldn’t help the plug) values core to the unity and identity of the people; politicians are willing and often go as far as to throw the baby out with the water in the name of democracy.

So, again, just how did the Asian tiger outrun the African lion?

  • Both Asia and Africa inherited the same set of instruments.
  • Asian countries handed their instruments to a trusted conductor to organize them in order to make music.
  • In African countries, the reverse happened, instead, everyone grabbed their own instrument and without anyone to organize them, we ended up making noise.
  • While Asia invested in music (focus & stability), Africa invested in and keeps investing in noise (distractions & turbulence). It’s no wonder why the difference in evolution between South Korea and her African comes as a surprise to use Africans; we are making so much noise, not only are we unable to listen to each other, but we are unable hear what’s really happening in the world around.
  • Even in Tanzania, where Nyerere seemed to understand this pivotal lesson in forging development, it seems evident that Mwalimu’s successors may have not fully understood.  They quickly put focus on the consequence of Mwalimu’s methods which entailed economic hardship as opposed to his intention which was to forge our unity fostering a more conducive environment for sustained development.
  • So instead of reinforcing Mwalimu’s unique investment (which involved sacrifice) allowing him to assume the coveted positioning as our trusted conductor, spiritual epicenter and Father of the Nation who unites us as a people through the universal values he propagated; we have taken to everyone grabbing their instrument with no one trusted enough to organize us.
  • This is our norm that is informing our reality: NOISE, NOISE, NOISE and more NOISE.

This is what Africa and even Tanzania may not get; the world has changed. In the era of Globalization, the world is no longer divided by geographies and ideologies; the world is divided by realities that we invest in everyday. Only those who own their realities and inform them with a norm that is sustainable beyond self will truly prosper. Investing in music allowed Asia to have a shared direction and is the norm that informs their current narrative.

What norm does all this noise afford Africa? Is it sustainable and to what end? In as much as we need to own our reality, let’s step back and reflect on what our reality is and whether it is the norm we need to achieve our desired future.

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