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Truth to power

African democracy looks very different when viewed from Palestine

A different perspective: Birzeit University. Oromiya321 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

For the past two weeks I’ve been lecturing at Birzeit University in Palestine. It has a beautiful campus and its students have radical views, expressed with such politeness that I am continually impressed. They are bright, and the MA class I teach contains students who would do well in a British graduate school.

I have been teaching Comparative Foreign Policy, and one of the eight lectures in the course was on African foreign policies. The students took a deep interest. They especially interrogated my account of how seemingly powerless countries could still vault themselves onto the international stage.

They also were full of comparisons with their own national condition. “We see,” they said, “how Buhari, after a clean win and with all those hopes pinned on him, still has not named a cabinet a month after taking office. Is this a case of another old man who wishes to do well, but doesn’t know how in a world that has grown too complex for his previous experience?”

Another question was: “This President Kaunda of Zambia whom you admire because of his commitment to negotiation: did not all his efforts to negotiate with first the Rhodesians and then the South Africans fail? Would any negotiations to end Apartheid have been successful had the Cubans not defeated the South African army at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale?”

Commodified captivity

The students were of course drawing from their own national history of failed negotiations and failed leadership. The campus favoured Hamas in the student elections, rejecting the Fatah or PLO candidates. But it seems they did so mostly out of pessimism over Fatah. They told me that when Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections for all Palestine (but later had that victory torn from them by war), it was because of an “anyone but Fatah” mentality.

Again, African states provided good examples. “You see, when you speak of elections in Africa, it is impressive to us. When Buhari won, Goodluck Jonathan rang him up to congratulate him. He might not have wanted to do so, but he did it. Governments and parties have started to change in Africa, but we see no such change here.”

Goodluck Jonathan hands over to his vanquisher, Muhammadu Buhari. EPA/Deji Yake

But they were most interested in joining up my lecture on Chinese foreign policy with the one on Africa. “If the Chinese would come here and build us airports, as they have in Africa, we would not be strangled in all our transport links by the Israelis. A simple thing like that and, even without independence, we would be free.”

It has been a very long time since I have been in a country where Africa, far from the benighted continent, is seen as the one where progress is possible, and is looked upon with envy. This was a salutary lesson for my own moments of Afro-pessimism.

But I understand my students: young and bright but with highly constrained futures, they at least look forward with irony to the first western-style shopping mall now being built in Ramallah. It will have a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Pizza Hut, an H&M, a Zara, the lot – just as shopping malls now litter every African city, under what seems like a conscious policy of building one near every major urban slum.

“It will be a commodified captivity,” my students joke. “We shall have retail therapy in our national imprisonment. We wonder whether liberation would have worked in Africa if there had been shopping malls back then.”

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