Marian Tupy: Hello and welcome to Human Progress Podcast. Today with me is Michela Wrong, a celebrated author and journalist, an old Africa hand and a good friend of mine. Welcome, Michela.
Michela Wrong: Well, thanks for having me on, Marian. This is gonna be fun.
Marian Tupy: I hope so. So you have a new book out, which I’m going to show to our audience, but we’ll also do an image and a link. It’s called Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, and it is obviously a book about the killing of a former intelligence chief in Rwanda… Or rather the killing happened in Johannesburg, South Africa, but he was the former intelligence chief in Rwanda and we’ll get to talk about that. But that just came out this year. But for the sake of our audience, I just want to remind them of your other books. So this is… I don’t actually know which one of your books is my favorite, but I do know that this one was the first one, which was In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, and that came out in 2000.
Marian Tupy: Then there was the, I Didn’t Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, and that was a book about Eritrea, and that came out in 2005, if I’m not mistaken. And then in 2009 or so, you came out with a book about Kenya, the story of John Githongo, and that book was called, It’s Our Time to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. And I think, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that we met in 2007 when we were on a trip together in Kenya, and you may have been doing research on that book.
Michela Wrong: Yeah, I think that’s right. I remember that trip, it was a lot of fun. We went to up country to a lot of the incredibly beautiful lodges that you can find in the Rift Valley in Kenya, and I think I was in the process of doing a lot of the basic interviewing. But before we move on, I have to mention that there is one but that has never yet been published in America, but it’s published here in the UK and in the Commonwealth. So if ever an American publisher wants to publish it, this is actually my one and only novel, and it’s based on an Eritrean, the border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and I changed publishers, and as a result, it never got published in the States, but it sells quietly and I’m still very proud of it, but so that’s my little advert, in case anyone ever wants to publish it in the US.
Marian Tupy: Indeed. I should say, I don’t read enough novels. In fact, I don’t read novels at all, and it’s a terrible failing because everybody tells me that novels are a way of broadening your horizon and becoming a more rounded person and that sort of thing, but I’m just not into novels. In fact, the only book of yours, which I haven’t read, otherwise, it very much looks like, my library, it looks like a homage to Michela Wrong.
Michela Wrong: I can only approve of that. It’s true, a lot of people don’t ever touch novels, yeah.
Marian Tupy: Which of your books sold best and which one was most controversial?
Michela Wrong: I think… It’s quite hard to know about sales figures because you get them so long afterwards. I think the Congo book has sold very well, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, it’s been a steady seller. It often pairs up very well with Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, and it’s also… I’ve had a couple of people say that it’s just long enough to be read, if you’re on a flight from somewhere like America or Belgium or Paris to Congo, and you’re a fast reader, you can just about read it on the plane. So I think that’s also been in its favor. But it captured something and something that remains true of Zaire, and I didn’t realize it at the time, that that’s why it keeps selling, I think. I think the most controversial, it’s definitely the new one, the Rwanda book, Do Not Disturb, from the impact, the outraged vitriol that has been pouring out of Rwanda from Kigali, especially on Twitter, which of course didn’t exist when I was publishing my first book. It’s quite clear that it really hit a nerve.
Michela Wrong: And I think it’s also… I think there’s a turning point, a nudge point, a tipping point has come on Rwanda, where a lot of people who felt that they knew what the story of Rwanda was, are ready to think again. There was a rather complacent lazy black and white vision of Rwanda, my book challenges that and says, “Well, here are some things that you should know,” and it’s not quite as cozy and rosy as you thought beforehand. So I think that the timing happened to be right for that book, and that’s why partly it’s had a lot of impact, and again, caused a big furore.
Marian Tupy: And just to remind our listeners, Rwanda obviously, after the genocide in 1994, where it was, I believe, primarily Tutsis who were slaughtered by the Hutus, then you have a change of government, the Tutsis come to power, and they’ve been in power ever since, under Paul Kagame and Rwanda becomes something of a poster child for the international aid community. So the aid community wants to believe certain things about Rwanda. Can you take it from there?
Michela Wrong: Paul Kagame and the Rwandan patriotic front, which took power in 1994, that they ended the genocide, they rebuilt a traumatized society, they tried to put an end to toxic ethnic relations. Everyone now is a Rwandan in Rwanda, they’re neither Hutu nor Tutsi they got away with the identity cards. And also that they became, as you said, a poster child for development, in terms of delivering on poverty alleviation, maternal mortality, primary school education, vaccination rates, investment from abroad. Supposedly, Rwanda ticks all those boxes. What my book is saying is firstly, it questions a lot of those sweeping assumptions. It reminds people that the RPF has an awful lot of blood on its hands, both before it seized power, it was committing atrocities, mass atrocities of its own, and also after it seized power in 1994 that the chasing down, hunting down and massacres of Hutu refugees who had fled the country into neighboring Congo.
Michela Wrong: So it reminds people of that, it reminds people of the pillaging of the mineral resources of DRC, which has been systematic. And also, the newer element that we’ve seen is members of the ruling Tutsi elite who have fled abroad and are challenging Kagame, and saying, “We think you’ve become a dictator. This is not what we signed up for. This is not the country we wanted to build when we first toppled Juvénal Habyarimana. We don’t like the fact that all the elections are rigged, that there is no free press, that there is no real opposition, this is not… This was not our plan.” They are being systematically hunted down in exile, extraordinarily, in places like South Africa, in the UK, in the US, in Canada, in Belgium, even as far as Australia.
Michela Wrong: And a really very sinister, relentless campaign waged using the High Commissions, the embassies, the Rwandan embassies in various countries to chase them down, track them, threaten them, tell them to shut up, and if they won’t, to actually eliminate them and take them out, if they have taken the step of joining one of the key opposition parties. And that’s the story that most people, I think didn’t know about. It was being reported on, you could see the stories coming up in the local press and the local newspapers, but nobody had put it together in a book, and so that’s what my book looks at.
Michela Wrong: And I think at the end of reading that you come out with a much darker picture of what… Of who Paul Kagame is, because he’s very much the man directing all of this, but also what Rwanda is. That this country should not really be regarded as a model of development if this is the way… If these are the foundation blocks in which it has been built.
Marian Tupy: Yes. I think that’s a very important contribution of this book, Do Not Disturb, because it seems to me, having been working in Africa for about 10 years from the time I graduated from university until about 2010, 2011, was that Africa always searches for a model. It’s never liberalism, classical liberalism or free market liberalism that I espouse, maximum economic and political freedom. It’s always searching for something else. And certainly since the mid-2000’s, since the mid-aughties, I’ve heard a lot of Africans say, “Well, why can’t we be more like Rwanda because Rwanda is growing and it is an example of a good dictatorship,” if you will.
Michela Wrong: Yes.
Marian Tupy: So Kagame, for the longest time, had this reputation for being a man who was not only competent, in terms of governing the country, but also was an enlightened dictator. And your book is basically really saying that there is a very dark side to this regime, and it is not really an example for others to follow. Just like China or Russia are not an example for people to follow, if they care about more than just the economic development, if they also care about human rights and freedom, and that sort of thing.
Michela Wrong: Yeah, completely. I find it really depressing to see… I was talking to an Ethiopian woman yesterday, and she was saying, “Here in Ethiopia, the middle class is saying,” because you know there’s been war in Tigray and the country really feels, Ethiopia feels it’s straining apart at the seams, “that what we need is a Kagame because he just suppresses all these ethnic feelings, and he just won’t tolerate this sense of nationalism, ethnic nationalisms that are cropping up all across Ethiopia.” And I was like rolling my eyes, because I was thinking the thought that Kagame is the answer to Ethiopia’s problems is just… You think, “My God. Have we learned nothing?”
Michela Wrong: I look at, when I first went to Africa in the 1990s, ’cause I started working on Africa in the early 1990s, the three countries that were seen as development donor darlings were Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda. All of them countries where military rebel movements had seized power after wars and the leaders of those movements are saying all the right things, in terms of how they were gonna rebuild their countries and build democracies. And the donors fell in love with all of those regimes and they’re looking pretty bad these days.
Michela Wrong: And to just look at Ethiopia, where you have this raging civil war in the North. Look at Uganda, where you’ve had incredibly violent elections and where everyone is now agreeing that Museveni is well past his sell-by date. And then look at Rwanda, where we have one rigged election after another, and you think, is this really what the middle classes of Africa… African officials who get invited to conferences in Kigali and come away so impressed by the neatness and the cleanliness of the streets and you think, “We’re familiar with these arguments, we’ve heard them.” Yes, Hitler also made the trains run on time. This is what people used to say of Mussolini. Everything works like clockwork, and it didn’t work out that well for… For pre-war Europe, that calculation.
Michela Wrong: But the other point I make in the book, and I think I touch on it fairly lightly, and I could have gone into more detail, but I’m leaving it to others, because I’m not a development economist, is that I don’t think Rwanda is delivering on this growth and investment model. I think there’s been a lot of hype, a huge amount of hype, it’s all taken for granted, but when you look in detail at the figures, and some people have started to do that, they don’t stand up to scrutiny, and especially in the business sphere, in the sphere of investment, I wouldn’t invest in Rwanda because there is now a track record of key assets being confiscated by the state, and key entrepreneurs being accused of tax evasion when quite clearly, it’s more that they stepped on various political toes.
Michela Wrong: And it is astonishing to me, there’s this thing called the Doing Business Index the World Bank backs and Rwanda is right up there, as high as many European countries for the ease of doing business and it’s completely nonsensical, it really doesn’t deserve that kind of ranking. It’s time that was looked at more closely. So I don’t believe… I think if you’re gonna do this Faustian bargain, as has been described by Economist David Himbara, David Himbara talks about this Faustian bargain of you sacrifice freedom of speech for economic development. I don’t think that Rwanda delivers on that bargain.
Marian Tupy: That’s very interesting, it reminds me of Bill Clinton going to Africa in the late 1990s, maybe around 2000. And as you said, he held up Uganda under Museveni, then Ethiopia under Zenawi was it, Meles Zenawi?
Michela Wrong: Yes. Meles, yeah.
Marian Tupy: And also… Yeah, Meles, and also you have obviously, Rwanda under Kagame. And then you have the massive conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1990s, the conflict over Badme which killed tens of thousands of people, as you say, Kagame has rigged a number of elections. Even though he promised that he would leave power, I believe in 2017, he is still there, and in Uganda, Museveni has been in charge since 1986. So that leadership doesn’t look very promising. How long have you been writing about Africa and what made you interested in Africa? Can we maybe start there?
Michela Wrong: Okay. I started writing about Africa in 1992, I was sent to Côte d’Ivoire by Reuters just as part of the Reuters bureau in Abidjan, and I only spent nine months there because I took that opportunity that was offered to jump into the newspaper, The Sunday Times, and then that turned out to be a disastrous career move, so a year later, I was out of a job, and I called up Reuters and I said, “I like that first taste I had of Africa. I’d like to do more, but I don’t want to go back into the corporate structure. Do you need a stringer?” ‘Cause I actually thought that being a stringer in Africa would be more fun than working in the office and rewrite [0:16:23.2] ____ correspondence [0:16:28.7] ____ And they said, “Well, yeah, we’ve got a space in Kinshasa, we’ve got an opening there,” and I… I knew that there had been two rounds of army-led pillaging in Kinshasa and I thought, that one, I think maybe not there. And they said, “Well, actually that’s the only opening we’ve got,” and so I did go to Kinshasa and I was very, very glad.
Michela Wrong: It was great. It was a wonderful opportunity. It was 1994, so a real interesting time when Mobutu was looking very beleaguered, very vulnerable; 1994, of course, was the year that the Rwandan genocide broke out in April, so I ended up spending a lot of time in Kinshasa, but also spending a lot of time flying to Goma and going into that whole area between the two countries where the refugees were flooding in from Rwanda, fleeing the advance of the RPF, covering then the refugee camps in Eastern Kivu, and then also going into Kigali so it was a really fascinating period of history, a pretty horrific period of history. There was very obvious signs that there had been massacres committed by juvenile Habyarimana’s militias and army and you came across churches where clearly, people have just been slaughtered in the aisles, and there were women on their knees, scrubbing away the blood stains in church yards, where thousands of bodies have clearly been buried in the big rush, so it was a very traumatic period in that country’s history, obviously also traumatic for Congo and its impact on Congo and a country that very few of us knew anything about.
Michela Wrong: So it was a very steep learning curve, and I’m still on that learning curve today because a lot of that Do Not Disturb story is really about me saying that I got it wrong in various particulars, I was too ready to be impressed by the RPF. I was too ready to dismiss stories I was hearing from diplomats and sometimes NGO workers, and certainly from refugees, saying, “These people also have blood on their hands, these people have also slaughtered and committed ethnic cleansing,” but because they were ending the violence, a specific violence of the genocide, they were seen as being the good guys. So a lot of the books are saying as journalists, you can never know too much and that also, you have to be very wary of reaching sweeping conclusions.
Marian Tupy: Right. So the first 30 years that you’ve been reporting on Africa have been… I mean, your books really are about the catastrophes on the continent and about the role of big men in making those things happen, such as Mobutu’s disastrous rule over Zaire, which is now Congo. But I recall, in 2000, The Economist writing about Africa as a hopeless continent. Is that how you felt back then and has anything changed in terms of how you perceive the continent today?
Michela Wrong: I think because I was so fresh to the continent, I was just soaking it all in and trying to see patterns, and I still feel I’m doing that now. One of the problems with Africa is you’ve got 54 countries and they’re all so incredibly different. I mean, the differences between Eritrea and Swaziland, for example, or Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique, they’re just so enormous and the colonial histories, of course, played a key role. So each country has been molded by that incredibly different colonial history. This is the problem when you become labelled as an Africa correspondent. For one thing, I only write about Sub-Saharan Africa, I don’t write about the Maghreb. And there are lots of parts of Africa I’ve never been to. I’ve never been to Zimbabwe, for example, to my embarrassment. I’ve only ever spent a week in Botswana.
Michela Wrong: I had an enormous patch when I was working, ’cause I left Reuters and later went to the Financial Times, and at one stage I had over 30… I think it was like 40 countries, supposedly, in my remit. So it’s just ridiculous and a sign, of course, of how strategically unimportant Africa is seen to be by newspapers and western media, and there are solid reasons for that relegation. But so, [0:21:07.3] ____ I’m always a bit wary of generalizing, but I think, I certainly feel, this is quite a sobering moment in African history. I feel, in the ’90s, when I went back there, there were certain things that were obviously about to happen or had just happened, and that were gonna shape Africa, and I’m struck that the outcome hasn’t, in some cases, hasn’t been more positive.
Michela Wrong: So the key issue was the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was obviously gonna have a massive impact on Africa in the early ’90s and beyond, because all of those unhealthy, parasitic relationships between the superpowers, the Soviet Union and the Americas supporting these corrupt, blood-thirsty dictators across Africa, just because they were on the right side of the Cold War. That was clearly coming to an end. And I was there when Mobutu fled. So that was a great example. Juvénal Habyarimana, while he was a French, he was on the French side but that there was also a sense to which all of those kind of friendships and collaborative partnerships were challenged by the Berlin Wall coming down. And I think then you have… Yes, you then have the African Renaissance leaders coming forward and the idea that this was gonna be Africa forging its own way, and we weren’t going to see these sclerotic dictators who never stood down, and we were seeing elections sweeping across the continent, and governments that were dedicated to progress and education and free press.
Michela Wrong: And a lot of those things have happened, but they’ve all been qualified. So, for example, we have seen elections sweeping across Africa and I’ve covered endless elections, I think I covered five sets of elections in Kenya, but you’ve also seen them being rendered neutered and emasculated by the very sophisticated rigging techniques that African governments have learned to adopt. So they presented a challenge, but a challenge that a lot of these ruling elites have taken in their stride and digested and then they’ve gone on forward. You’ve also seen the leaders, the presidents… We used to talk about the dinosaurs: The Mobutu, the Bongo, the Mois, the Biyas. They were called the dinosaurs very contemptuously. They were old, they needed to leave, they were corrupt, they had these ridiculous outfits, and they were trying to establish ruling monarchies hand down to their children.
Michela Wrong: Well, Biya’s never left power. You can see these ruling dynasties being established by the replacements of the [0:24:11.9] ____ when he was killed in Chad, handed over to his son. Laurent Kabila, when he was assassinated quite a while back, handed over to Joseph Kabila. It’s not… We’ve seen speculation, I have no idea if it’ll end up being true that Museveni might also hand over to his son. There’s even been speculation, Kagame handing over to his daughter. And what you’ve seen is all of these leaders fiddling with the Constitution, one after another after another. They’ve been watching each other and they see that it can be successfully done, how you do it, how you use parliament, how you use the Supreme Court. So they change the constitutions that limited them to two terms, they stay in power forever. It doesn’t really matter how many elections they stand for, they’re gonna win every one.
Michela Wrong: The press, after this wonderful explosion of citizen radio and the internet, and the radio waves were opened up, and television channels and new newspapers, some of this [0:25:20.0] ____ of Africa is really shocking. Very clear to me, when my book on Rwanda came out, you just see this chorus of sycophancy in Rwanda where there is no free press, and you also see the way in which social media which, when it first started, people thought, “Oh, what a wonderful tool of liberation,” and, “It’s gonna open things up and people’s democracy.”
Michela Wrong: It’s been cynically abused by so many of these regimes. I mean, there is no more assiduous user of Twitter than the Rwandan government, Rwandan intelligence. I saw that myself with all these smears where you’re constantly called a racist, a genocide denier, a Ugandan agent, a spy, having slept with your sources. Endless, endless abuse on Twitter which, to the uninitiated who don’t bother to look at those accounts, it looks like it’s coming from ordinary Rwandans. And also you’re seeing the internet being repeatedly switched off by governments in Ethiopia, in Uganda. So when it suits them, they just switch the internet off, they switch WhatsApp off.
Michela Wrong: So, all these the tools and technology that we hoped was gonna open things up and make governments more accountable have also been very successfully, at times, muted. So, I think it’s the baby dinosaurs are roaring. John Githongo, who I wrote my book about Kenya about, has talked about the democratic recession in Africa, and I think he’s right. There is quite a deep democratic recession taking place in Africa and I think that very often, the middle classes and the elites of Africa are not really playing a particularly intelligent or helpful role because of this thing where you hear them welcoming the likes of Kagame and saying what we need is strong man rule. And you think, when I hear Kenyans talk about this for example, you think you’ve just only recently come out of being ruled by Moi, and I don’t remember people having too many good things to say about Daniel arap Moi. How many lessons do you need in terms of the fact that there is no such thing as a benign dictator? So, I suppose that’s my vision over the last 30 years, that there’s been massive change but that there is this sense of, in some areas, the same problems remain.
Marian Tupy: I want to get on to economics and just your perception of general standard of living in the countries that you have visited and changes there. But before then, you mentioned that you’ve never gone to Zimbabwe and, of course, Zimbabwe is the rock upon which the entire business of African Renaissance broke up because Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s president at that point, South Africa was still Africa’s largest economy and the most powerful nation. Today I think that’s probably Nigeria but back then, Mbeki was all about how important it was that there should be more democracy, accountability, transparency amongst the African regimes until his buddy Mugabe, started having problems in Zimbabwe with economic collapse and mass protests and dissatisfaction and international sanctions and all that thing.
Marian Tupy: And when it was time for Mbeki to tell Mugabe to go and let opposition run the country, instead what happened was Mbeki embraced Mugabe and basically rubber-stamped stolen elections in Zimbabwe. And so, there you can see how somebody who presented himself as an idealistic reformer like Mbeki, when it came to his friends and the reality of giving up power in Zimbabwe, he favored the ruling regime, no matter how corrupt over the democracy and opposition. So, perhaps the retrenchment from democracy started happening all the way back in 2008 or so when Mbeki was still in charge. But let’s spend a little more time on the new technology and African interaction with it.
Marian Tupy: So, yes, the governments can switch off all of these apps and the internet and so forth, but at the same time, an ordinary African has access to a lot of information about the world which he previously didn’t. Okay? So, let’s say that I’m a 16-year-old African boy and I’m poor, and there is depression in my country, but on the internet I can see that people elsewhere live better, more prosperous and freer lives. Do you want to opine on the effect of that knowledge on ordinary Africans? At their fingertips, they have the entire library of human knowledge. They have the awareness of how people are treated in other parts of the world. Does that make a difference, do you think?
Michela Wrong: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I remember a wonderful moment where… If you’re a journalist, technology matters a great deal to you because of course, it dictates whether you can send your article. And when I first went to Kinshasa, I was using something called a sat telex, which was even fairly basic and backward by that time, but it was available and it was cheap, and it wasn’t gonna cost more Reuters much. It was a big black box that had no screen, you couldn’t really read words on it, and I would put it out on the balcony and aim it at the satellite. And satellite phones, if you wanted to borrow one. Afterwards, I joined a newspaper, I had to hire Reuters’s sat phone, and it was costing $40 a minute to use a sat phone.
Michela Wrong: So if you wanted to dictate a story, which you tended to have to do ’cause you couldn’t get your computer to send digital text back to headquarters, you would be spending $40 a minute. So, the primitive nature and the vast logistical problems involved in trying to cover Africa, as recently as the ’90s, I think it’s so easy to forget now that we have a mobile phone mast on every hill, and that should have had an amazing effect. And I remember standing in a field talking to a woman just after the ethnic cleansing that followed the elections in Kenya and we were interviewing, me and a colleague, we were interviewing a woman farmer in a field near Eldoret in Kenya, and a phone rang and she fished into her apron. She was standing there and had bare foot in the mud, and she fished into her apron and took out her phone, and I remember thinking, “This is amazing.”
Michela Wrong: I’m like, “She’s got a phone. God, isn’t it amazing how things have changed and so fast.” And cyber net cafes on every corner. So that obviously, yeah, that knowledge is out there but sometimes people don’t know how to access the stuff that’s pertinent to them. So for example, I played a role at an African Literary Foundation, where I was giving a lecture at one stage on non-fiction books that have been published about Africa and which ones the people on the course, who were all young African writers, might find interesting. And the fact that… They could actually have a very clear sense of what was in those books by using Look Inside on Amazon, which is the facility that allows you to read large segments of books for free, or you could always see an excerpt from one of those books being published in The New Yorker or The Guardian or The Atlantic Monthly.
Michela Wrong: I think that there was a under-appreciation amongst the students of how much you can get for free, how extraordinary, how wonderful it is. And I think one of the problems with the story, this accessibility, is that Africa continues to look at itself through Western eyes. So Salim Amin had these plans for this Pan-African channel, and it would have been the African equivalent of Al Jazeera, and it would have been African reporters, African producers covering African stories from African perspectives, but he never managed to get it together. And it still remains something that I think there’s a crying need [0:34:19.0] ____ will see if you’re in South Africa or Kenya, you’ll be watching coverage from Nigeria, but it’s not coming from a Kenyan reporter. It’s coming from CNN, or it’s coming from the BBC. And the BBC World Service is very good and Al Jazeera, I think, has been a very welcome addition ’cause it’s widened that whole perspective, but you’re still seeing this filtering through other eyes and other perspectives, so that remains a problem.
Michela Wrong: And the people, you will often see, for example, I remember Kenyans got very, very angered by the coverage of one of the terrorist attacks in Nairobi by The New York Times. There was feeling it was racist because it showed bodies of Kenyans who had been killed by Al-Shabab while they were having coffees in a cafe, typing on their computers, and it was a thing that New York Times had not been sufficiently sensitive to what that looked like if you knew those people who had been killed. But I remember thinking that: Why were Kenyans so upset about The New York Times’ coverage? This was their own story. What did it matter what America was saying about this massive tragedy in the heart of Nairobi? That’s the way Americans cover… I don’t get upset about the way South Africa is going to cover a story that happens down the road from me in London. I expect them to have a South African perspective and a South African focus but because, of course, the American media dominates the way in which Africa is presented or the British media, or the Western media does.
Michela Wrong: There’s a deep sense of hurt and outrage at those images and that coverage and it seemed to me, just, it highlighted the fact that Africa is still reading about Africa via the West. So, that’s still a problem. And then the other point I would make is I think social media lends itself to fantasy. One of the issues we have, of course, as Fortress Europe is buckling down and trying to raise the fences and prevent Africans and any other kind of immigrants from coming to our country is that Africans who come to Britain, to France, to Belgium, are not particularly honest about what it’s like when you get here, and they just send marvelous pictures of them in the park or enjoying a party with their mates. They don’t convey the full ordeal that is involved in trying to settle in a country where maybe you’re not being allowed to work, you don’t have many friends, your degree is not recognized, you’re expected to share a room with 16 other people from back home, and you feel constantly [0:37:28.6] ____ ilities and unwelcome. Facebook pictures, Instagram photographs, social media, Twitter posts do not convey the grimness of that experience.
Michela Wrong: And so you get this fantasy vision that is being broadcast back… Back home and of course, that encourages youngsters to feel that if they don’t also try and leave and try and settle in the West, they’re… They’re suckers, they’re fools. They’re the only uncool person who stayed back home. And I find that, that is not particularly helpful. I mean it’s a fake version of reality that is presented on social media and you need someone to edit it and say, “This is not actually where I live” or “This is not actually where I work.”
Marian Tupy: Well, I certainly remember growing up in Johannesburg that I was always puzzled by how little of the news was devoted to covering Africa, it was mostly about what was happening in the States, what was happening in Europe, but really, if you wanted to watch news about Africa, you had to switch over to CNN when it was still a real TV station and all that… All that stuff.
Michela Wrong: I was talking to a Rwandan friend the other day, and I said, “I’ll talk to you in five minutes ’cause I have to put the rubbish out.” And he laughed in my face over the social media because he said, “You put out your own rubbish?” And I said, “What do you think? You think I live in a penthouse luxury villa with a swimming pool and I have people who take out my rubbish? No, I put out my own rubbish. Most people do in my circle of friends, we put out our own rubbish and we do our own washing up.”
Marian Tupy: Is it your impression that the overwhelming, overarching desire amongst young Africans is to leave the continent, to move away, as opposed to fixing their societies at home, that flourishing of democracy that you talked about in the ’90s and the early aughties, has that come to an end? The young people have given up, there’s nothing good for us here or is that not the case?
Michela Wrong: I think it depends where you go and where you are talking about, it’s certainly true of Eritrea, which is one of the countries that I’ve looked at most closely. In Eritrea, they have this open-ended military service, and that has been enough to drive mass of… The younger population is trying to leave, even if they haven’t succeeded, they are trying to get out. And that’s why you see Eritreans popping up in every kind of refugee community, whether they’re in Libya or the Sinai or in Calais, in the jungle. There will always be some Eritreans amongst them, because first, they don’t want to do military service, but also it’s a very, very poor country, and I think the psychology has been established, and I think that this psychology goes wider than just Eritrea where if you stay home, you’re a sucker, you’re the only uncool one, all your cohort, everyone you went to school with, they’ve all gone abroad and they’re sending you pictures back on Facebook saying, “See how well I’m doing, see… Here I am with my new girlfriend, here I am… “
Michela Wrong: And deeply deceiving pictures quite often. And so I think it becomes almost irrelevant what the conditions of their lives are in Africa because it will automatically be better when they hit the west, and I don’t think they examine too closely the conditions, the legal system, the legal barriers that will be put in their way, the issue of language and how massive that is, how very difficult it is to operate in a country if you don’t speak the language very fluently. I remember funding a lovely Eritrean student in Eritrea to complete her pediatric studies, she qualified as a pediatric nurse. And then the next thing I knew, she was in Ethiopia and she’s now here in the UK, and of course, she hasn’t used any of the training that I was in touch with her ’cause I was trying to help her get her degree, because her degree is worthless in the UK, as anyone could have told her would be the case, and she hasn’t had time to retrain, she has had children. And I would be very interested to talk to her and say, “Did you envisage any of this? Did you see how hard it was going to be?” Because I suspect that she just was being constantly told by her school mates, “Come, come, come, come and join us.”
Marian Tupy: Economically, have you seen any positive change? In other words, if you look at the lives of ordinary people in some of the countries that you visit often, like Kenya, for example, has there been a great improvement or even a medium-sized improvement in how ordinary people live? Is economic prosperity… We hear a lot about Africa growing at a faster pace than before, 5% economic growth rate in the last 15 years or so. Is that felt by ordinary people or you’re skeptical?
Michela Wrong: I think, you see… You definitely feel and see the infrastructural changes. Like there were times in Nairobi where I stood on street corners and for a moment, I still thought I’d either had a brain tumor or… You literally don’t recognize where you are and used think, this is a street I’ve gone up and down hundreds of times, and I don’t recognize it, and it’s because the Chinese… There’s a Chinese built motorway that has cut through here and that cut through there, and this area has disappeared, it’s just been, especially in Kenya, just the most massive changes and lots of flats, every piece of abandoned land or free land has just had a block of flats thrown up on it. And obviously, initially those blocks of flats are being moved into by middle class people ’cause education has expanded, there’s huge numbers of people who have been able to go to university, who haven’t before. And you can see if you go into an airplane… If you ever get into a small light aircraft and go over Nairobi or the outskirts of Nairobi, you can just see the city, the city expanding and this massive urban rush. And that’s true of most of the countries in Africa.
Michela Wrong: But certainly, at individual level, life does remain very tough and most people who have lived in Africa end up sending money back and COVID has been a very, very tough time because the curfews and lockdowns made it impossible for taxi drivers, hawkers, people running small stores to do their business, and they’ve literally got nothing to fall back on, apart from friends and relatives and people in the diaspora who send them money. And I’m not seeing those people suddenly achieving prosperity and comfort. They’re still working really hard and they’re older than I am, and they’re reaching a state of life where they should have a retirement and a pension, and some kind of security and that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Michela Wrong: That’s obviously troubling. The other thing I always find quite [0:45:18.8] ____ solitary and I try and offset it by telling myself that we all tend to be a bit like this, we all tend to say, the refrain is, “It was better under… ” Everyone does that. But one of the things that constantly shocked me in Africa is when you talk to members of the older generation, they will say, “It was better under colonialism.” And you go, “No, no, don’t tell me that, no. That’s not what I wanna hear. This is not the way it should be.” But I’ve heard that in a lot of Africa. I’ve heard that in Zaire. I’ve heard that… You’ll even sometimes hear people saying in Uganda, they’ll say things were better under Idi Amin, and you’re going, “Oh, for God’s sake, please.” And yeah, I think people when they’re aging, they can all become a bit embittered and a bit grumpy. But that is a sign that at some level, those governments have let their people down, that people could even be thinking those thoughts, even if they’re just whiny thoughts. I think for me, one of the most interesting challenges of the next few years in Africa is gonna be the same one that’s facing Britain, Europe.
Michela Wrong: I mean, Britain has been through this massive heartbreaking moment where we left the European Union and now we’re facing the issue of whether or not the Scots want to go their own way. And people are talking about Ireland being united. And obviously, that would mean that Northern Ireland would leave the United Kingdom. And we’ve seen what happened in Yugoslavia, we’ve seen what happened in Czechoslovakia. And I think we’re seeing these same forces at work in Spain, with Catalonia. And I think the issue for me that is really going to be key in Africa, is the identity that people seek to embrace. So it seems to me one of the biggest stories in Africa at the moment, and it’s gonna probably dominate African affairs for the next five to 10 years is the Ethiopian story.
Michela Wrong: And what you’re seeing is this bubbling up of ethnic nationalism and the question of, do Ethiopians think of themselves as Ethiopian? Or do they think of themselves as Amhara? Or Tigrayan? Or Oromo? And the same questions have been there for ages in Kenya, do people think of themselves as Kenyans? Or are they Kalenjin? Are they Kikuyu? First and foremost, where does their loyalty lie? And for me, that became very obvious when I was writing the book about corruption, It’s Our Turn to Eat, in Kenya, I realized that corruption wasn’t about greed and stealing. It was about who you think you are, because you don’t think of stealing as stealing if you’re doing it for the community.
Michela Wrong: And that’s the way government ministers present it to their public. And that’s the way their voters also see things. They think, “Well, yeah, of course, he’s a thief, but he’s stealing for us. He’s stealing for us in the Kamba community. He’s stealing for us in the Luhya community.” And I think that’s really the massive issue, it’s identity. And Rwanda, more than anywhere else in Africa has been ripped apart by the question of whether you’re Hutu, Tutsi, Twa or Rwandan. So I think that that’s gonna be the big one. And I don’t know what the answer is. And obviously, people are going to feel… A lot of it goes down to the question of what form democracy takes because if you have central executive, which is running your country, which you don’t feel is sensitive to your needs, at any level, then you’re gonna be more inclined to cluster towards your community.
Michela Wrong: And then that will mean that you steal for your community or you fight for your community. And you don’t want to recognize Addis’s or Nairobi or Kampala’s or Kigali’s authority. But if you have a system in which there’s more local power, federalism, resources that are spent locally, and the sense that you’re local, that you have a big man, but a local big man that you can hold to account, I think that that’s less likely to bubble up as an issue. So I think that for me, that’s the big issue coming up in the future. And I don’t know which way it’s gonna be answered.
Marian Tupy: We just had this issue in South Africa, Jacob Zuma went to jail for corruption. I mean, the number mentioned there is about three and a half billion dollars which have disappeared and that has led to massive outbreaks of violence and rioting, primarily in Natal, which is the homeland of the Zulus. And of course, Zuma himself is a Zulu. And so you can see the echoes of ethno-nationalism there. There was a fascinating article written by, Helen Zille who is the former prime minister of Western Cape. When she said that whenever she confronted Zuma about his corruption and stealing, he basically responded that he doesn’t recognize this concept. It’s a Western concept, he cannot possibly be answerable to judges and things like that, because what he’s doing, he’s doing for his people. So that is happening actually in the most sophisticated, if you will, of African political environments, so I wouldn’t be too shocked to see it happening elsewhere.
Marian Tupy: So okay, so then the question is, how do you perceive the future of ethno-nationalism in Africa? So, on the one hand, if it leads to… Into ethnic conflict, like it did in 1994 in Rwanda, then that obviously is horrible for the future of the continent. If on the other hand, it leads to greater federalism or confederalism, cantonal system, like we see in Switzerland, then that could possibly soothe some of the concerns that different ethnies have about the behavior and the actions of the central government.
Michela Wrong: Yeah, I think that’s gonna be the key. I mean, in Democratic Republic of Congo, there was a lot of discussion at a certain stage a few years back of a federal system of rule, and it all boiled down to, as we know, Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of assets, is the richest country in Africa, potentially, but it’s the poorest in terms of its… The daily experience for its citizens, because all of that wealth has been stolen and hoovered off and funneled off to bank accounts abroad. And there was a big discussion about, let’s have a federal system, and then it really fell down because you have to have… The resources have to be funneled out to the federal areas.
Michela Wrong: It’s not enough just to talk about power being delegated and power being locally applied, you have to… And what they were doing is they were getting the mineral assets and the resources from the mineral assets, and the diamonds, and the timber, and the oil. But my understanding is they were going first to Kinshasa and then were supposed to be returned to the local provinces and the governors, and of course, once you do that, then you never see that… Those funds again because it just remains in Kinshasa and the system breaks down.
Michela Wrong: So that was the federal system in name alone. What’s interesting in Ethiopia is I was pretty convinced by the idea that… The notion that laid behind malice and all these ethnic federalism was very beguiling. The idea that the best way to keep a country together is by allowing ethnic identity to have free expression and these local provinces should have the right to break off if that’s what people really want. And that way, they have a lot of local autonomy and they should… It’s up to the people living in those provinces if they want to remain part of the whole.
Michela Wrong: But what you’re seeing is, and I remember in the reporting on this at the time, that that sounded like a great, sophisticated system of taking the pressure off ethnic identity but because in fact, the TPLF remained in control of the levers of power, even at the local level, there would be TPLF officials who were really running the system and the local Oromo or Amhara officials were still answering to them and they really were controlling things behind the scenes.
Michela Wrong: And also, of course, a lot of the key industries that developed remain in TPLF hands and the security services were seen as being TPLF controlled. It was… Again, it was a name alone, it wasn’t the genuine article, and so I think now you’re seeing this real explosion of ethnic animosity and hostility and tension because that wasn’t what it seemed. It was a good idea that wasn’t actually put into practice. So I think you have to really… You have to really deliver on the federal notions and it has to be given concrete form in terms of resources and security apparatus.
Marian Tupy: So, so far in this interview, we have discussed, let’s see, democratic retrenchment. We have discussed economic stagnation and now on top of that, we have potentially ethno-nationalist conflict on the horizon. So what gives Michela Wrong hope for the future of Africa? Is there anything hopeful in the horizon?
Michela Wrong: Well, yes, because look at the age of that continent. Look at the… What is it, 70% of the population of Africa is below the age of 40. That’s just… There’s so much dynamism and energy, and these are well-educated youngsters who are coming forward and they’re ambitious and they want better lives, and all of that is going to be up to them to establish. I’m becoming rather long in the tooth now, and so…
Marian Tupy: Nonsense. Nonsense.
Michela Wrong: No, but it’s true. And also, I feel… I was looking at the quote that Obama often will cite Martin Luther saying, what is it, “The arc of history bends towards justice.” And I fundamentally don’t agree with that. I feel there is no arc of history. I think the arc of history is a wiggly line and it probably goes like that. And I think it goes ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding… So I think politicians have to talk in those terms because that’s their shtick, they’re trying to win around their publics and the constant… The idea that there’s constant improvement is part of their selling point.
Michela Wrong: But I don’t… As someone who’s just watched the history of Africa for the last three decades, I don’t have to believe that. I can believe that African countries, African governments take two steps forward and then three steps back, and then one step forward, and then have disastrous 10 years, and then… And then suddenly, are places of great hope and inspiration. I don’t think it’s necessary to have one graph. I don’t… If I look at my own country and Europe, I don’t see it as having one steady line, I see it as being much more complicated than that.
Marian Tupy: Joel Mokyr, who is a great economic historian here in the United States recently reminded me that whereas economic historians talk about technological, medical and scientific progress, they talk about political change, because it’s very difficult to see a clear line in terms of how humanity governs itself, it’s very difficult to see that there is a constant improvement. I do think that humans are becoming a little bit gentler, a bit nicer. There are a lot of things which we used to do to one another in the past, such as cannibalism, human sacrifice and so forth, that we no longer do. But in terms of governance, it’s obvious that political freedom is not guaranteed in any sense, that… We were talking about the flourishing of democracy in the ’90s and early aughties in Africa and how that has been stifled. You mentioned that you’ve been to Botswana. Now, what do you make of Botswana? Because when I ask you about, are you hopeful about Africa’s future? When I think about hope, I think about Botswana. By no means perfect, but from my personal experience, it seems to work. What did you make of it, and what do you think is the secret to its success?
Michela Wrong: Yeah, I just didn’t spend long enough there. I went for a conference. I think I’m wary of people using that analogy because it’s so small and it’s been so blessed with diamonds, and it does… In terms of ethnicity, it seems that it does not have the historic divides that have been such a problem in other countries. It seems to me that… I’m wary of citing Botswana, as a example, because all of the things that hold good there will not be likely to hold good anywhere else, so it’s a useless example.
Marian Tupy: Let me tell you a little bit of my own thinking about Botswana. Some of it is pretty standard, but some of it is uncomfortable. One is that I don’t think that size necessarily matters. You have micro-states or states with small populations that can succeed, have terrific success: Hong Kong, Singapore, or what have you. And I don’t think that the natural resources explanation cuts it because of course, if you have a lot of natural resources, you can also mess it up terribly. Like…
Michela Wrong: We have many, many places in Africa.
Marian Tupy: Precisely. Like DRC. The uncomfortable aspect of the discussion of Botswana is the following, and that is that it is a highly homogenous country, which goes back to what you were saying about your fear is or your prediction is, that over the next 5 to 10 years, ethno-nationalism is going to become much more of a story in Africa. You believe that the central governments are losing legitimacy, vis-a-vis the different tribes who live under umbrella of one country. And Botswana, to the extent, it is a success, which it is. It is a highly homogenous country and one wonders if that is part of its success.
Michela Wrong: Yes. And I would also point out that I think recently, it had started having its own troubles within the ruling elite that there have been clashes and some challenges. And the story of generally accepted legitimate leadership seems to have had its own issues recently. So the story might have slightly… The bloom has slightly come off that…
Marian Tupy: You really leave me with no hope… But I will say this though, and that is that even if Africa continues to stagnate politically and even if the economy is not growing at a pace that we would all like… As you say, they are starting from such a low level in those rural areas in places that we have both visited, that it will take a long time before they have a decent standard of living. But even then, I think that the world is going to change Africa in the following sense, and that is the technological, medical and scientific progress is still going to happen. Things are going to become cheaper. Eventually, they will filter down to Africa and they will make the lives of ordinary people better, be it internet and access to information or better medicines. Okay, so maybe we are not going to get a COVID vaccine coming out of Zimbabwe, but the Zimbabweans are going to get the COVID vaccine in due time developed somewhere else. I’m still hoping that that natural progression of human progress, when it comes to science and technology, will filter down.
Michela Wrong: And the other element which we haven’t discussed which goes against the tendency for ethnic nationalism to become an issue is the melting pot phenomenon, which you get when you have the urban draw in which everyone is heading into the city because their farms have become so small because population has led to land hunger. Population increase has led to land hunger, and so…
Marian Tupy: Let’s finish on that subject and talk about it just a little, just for a few more minutes. Urbanization is a worldwide phenomenon, but in Africa something like 50% of the population is already living in the cities. Now, there are obviously positive externalities to that, such as more land can be returned to animals and nature, people no longer live there, they are moving to the city. Cities are usually the drivers of human progress. That’s where innovation happens, that’s where culture happens and that sort of thing. But what you’re saying is that… What seems to me that you’re saying is that cities can also drive to break down those ethnic tensions and they can…
Michela Wrong: Yeah, I mean…
Marian Tupy: They can create a canyon.
Michela Wrong: Yes. Well, they can create… I think what you’re gonna see is the ethnic identity being replaced by class identity. And in Kenya, it’s quite striking that a lot of the informal settlements which you visit, people know that Mathare Valley, that area is Kikuyu, Kibera, that area is Luo. And that… When there is… When there are tensions, when there’s fighting, when there’s rioting, then people know what lines within the informal settlement the fighting will follow because everyone knows where the Kikuyus live, everyone knows where the Kalenjin live. And it’s very clear to the inhabitants, but as time goes by, of course, those informal settlements will become integrated, more mixed, people will marry across, businesses will also involve people going from one community to another, and everyone’s going to the same schools and attending often the same churches.
Michela Wrong: So that tendency is diluted as the years go by and people live in the city. And I think UN-Habitat is very hopeful that often the settlements, the areas that people drive through and think, “Oh my God, this is so poor, this life here must be so tough,” actually represent hope for their inhabitants because there are all sorts of healthy things that are happening there, in terms of education, in terms of mutual tolerance, in terms of people getting to know one another.
Michela Wrong: And I would have thought politically, that’s where also political parties that have always been premised on ethnic identity will end up being premised on class identity as the years go by. But I don’t think we’re yet there in most of the countries I’ve visited. People know that that political party in Kenya is mostly Kalenjin, or it’s mostly people from the west or mostly people from the coast. Everyone knows what the affiliation of those political parties are, but surely that will change.
Marian Tupy: Well, throughout this interview, I was wondering, where are we going to find a ray of hope for the future? And it seems to me that we got there, which is to say that there is a massive change happening in Africa in terms of urbanization, people are flowing to the cities, where the melting pot is real. And maybe the future of Africa means that the ethnic hatreds of the past will eventually be eroded and people will be living together in these massive cities.
Michela Wrong: Yeah, the city and the youth. The ambition and drive and hopefulness that comes with having a very, very young population across an entire continent.
Marian Tupy: Very good. So once again, I highly recommend all of Michela’s books, but the latest one is Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, which is about Rwanda and Paul Kagame. A controversial book, but I can say from personal experience, though I haven’t finished reading it, it is extremely well written, it reads like a murder mystery, and I’m enjoying every page. So thank you for writing it. And thank you very much for giving me time today.
Michela Wrong: Thank you, Marian.