12. Pride and Power

By Kap Kirwok

December 15 2012

At a recent international conference, I heard a bizarre and jarring statement from one of the speakers. It went something like this: “Of course my country is a dominant regional power. We are the only African country that was never colonised. We are the only one with a written indigenous language and the only country with an indigenous company that prospects for oil in its own land. Go google it – no country has ever discovered oil in its land with an indigenous company.“ And for good measure, he added. “We have been growing at an average of 10 % every year for 10 years now.” Actually, it is 8.7% by my quick calculation based on World Bank data, but never mind. A growth of 8.7 per cent is still quite impressive.

So here now we have the formula for regional dominance and power: pride, a written indigenous language, prospecting for your own oil and an average growth rate of 10%.

Oh the chutzpah!

This was at the recently ended East African Summit held from December 5 and 6 in Kigali, Rwanda. This is one of a series of high profile conferences organised by the Economist Magazine. The theme for this year was infrastructure and growth. (I suppose these conferences serve in some way to atone for the Economist’s dismissal of Africa as hopeless continent a decade ago).

By now you probably will have guessed the nationality of the speaker: the one and only country in Africa that was not colonised and has a written indigenous language – Ethiopia.

The only country that was never colonized… Does it really matter?

Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941 ended after a joint effort by British Ethiopian forces. From the end of the Second World War until recently, you could say it was a country flat on its back and is now barely working itself into a sitting position.

According to some historians, Afghanistan was never technically colonized – only occupied. From the Macedonians to the Mongols to the British and Russians and now the Americans, Afghanistan has never truly been subdued. Very proud people, to be sure, but it would be stretching it to say they are a regional power.

On the other hand, you could say Iran, another country that was never technically colonized, is a regional power of sorts. Certain parts of China – for example Hong Kong, Macau, and Inner Mongolia – can be said to have been truly colonized while the rest were not. China today is a regional supremo on its way to being a global super power.

The United States of America, which was colonized by Britain, is today a global superpower. And – a last example –Israel was colonized and its people at one point exiled. Today, it is a mini super power punching above its weight. There are many more such examples.

So, does being colonized really matter? You be the judge.

But back to our speaker. According to a Bloomberg report in May this year, the same speaker was quoted as acknowledging that, after the discovery of oil (which he said was imminent), infrastructure needed for production would cost as much as $3 billion, and that “… can only be done by the big boys.” Ummh!

There is no question that the tide is turning in Africa’s favour. In fact the two day conference echoed a familiar refrain: Africa, with East Africa as the tip of the spear, is charging forward aided by a strong tailwind. All things being equal, it could become a powerhouse in a couple of decades. And so, yes, one can understand the emerging confidence. That Africa needs confidence, plenty of it – not hubris – is not in doubt. Ethiopia, whose population is nearly four times larger than Ghana’s, but whose economy (as measured by 2011 GDP figures) at $31 billion is smaller by $8 billion, certainly needs plenty of confidence.

High levels of self-confidence, arguably, are as important for individual success as it is for nations. Self-confidence that is underpinned by knowledge and strategic assertiveness can be a real winner. In our region, besides Ethiopia, the proof is Rwanda. One is struck by the growing confidence and pride of her people. And it is not because of a written indigenous language (although they are proud of their language and are happy to flaunt it). It is a fierce self-confidence born of what they have proofed themselves capable of; a pride reinforced by the accolades they keep receiving from a world that has taken note.

And so by all means let us be proud and confident. It is good for our psychology. But let confidence spring from self-believe and self-respect. Above all, let us have a sense of proportion.

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