New Internationalist

The Wabenzi

Issue 139

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AFRICA [image, unknown] The power elite

[image, unknown]

The WaBenzi
A new tribe is ruling the many countries of Africa. Comfortable,
well-heeled, self-satisfied; secure in their positions of power.
And proudly they tout the symbol of their superiority. It’s a symbol
they have even adopted as their name; an elegant, star-shaped, silver
symbol - the international sign of the WaBenzi. Julian Champkin reports.

THE coup which brought the WaBenzi to power was not immediately recognised. But it established them, firmly and immovably, in control of almost every African country from Algeria to Zimbabwe, espousing philosophies from Marxist through middle-of-the-road socialist to stout capitalist.

Certain characteristics distinguish members of the WaBenzi, They are usually educated; most have studied abroad; they wear well-cut three-piece suits; their homelands are the air-conditioned offices in capital cities throughout the continent. It is rare to find them in the countryside, save possibly at election time. If describing them as fat is caricature it is also often the literal truth, for African tradition requires status to be displayed in the frequent feasting of dependents. They are known by many names; but the one most often used describes their common aspiration; WaBenzi like to ride in motorcars made by the firm of Mercedes-Benz.

WaBenzi are those who have made it to the top. If you gain their confidence they will tell you much about the people of their country, the subsistence farmers or nomads. They may say they are lazy or backward, and describe the mistakes they make. People talk a lot about peasants but no-one actually wants to be one. This is wise; a peasant’s life is one of relentless work, poverty and stupefying boredom.

Nowhere on earth is the gulf between governors and governed, capital and countryside, so great as in Africa. This is not a matter of wealth, nor of corruption, though the continent has more than its share of both. There are honest leaders in Africa; but even they cannot get close to their people. How has this gulf come about?

A leader in modern Africa has made a sacrifice not required of his western counterpart, He has sacrificed his roots. The process begins early. At school he is taught arcane facts in an arcane language. Not one of these facts will bear on the life of a peasant farmer. If he reaches secondary school he may learn mathematics, English or French and the constituent parts of the atom; he will learn nothing of the right way to plant millet or to conserve the soil. His parents may have struggled hard for his school fees, remembering the glittering prizes that fell upon the educated few at independence. It follows that to return to subsistence farming after school is to admit failure.

The semi-literacy produced in most African schools may not qualify students for high office but it certainly disqualifies them from being peasants. Their learning guarantees their unemployment. Many decline to touch a hoe again and drop out to the urban slums. The exceptional few with influence and ability get to study abroad and then drop out to urban riches. The schooling of both has given them a language not spoken by their parents and a contempt for the life they led. The wealth that paid for their expensive learning came from the countryside but precious little of it returns there.

So Africa’s elite are cut off from their roots. That is no easy life. Born into one world, trying to embrace another, they only half-succeed. Caught in between, they are pulled both ways. A doctor’s self-esteem or a politician’s power-base requires that wealth be displayed in the traditional manner. He is duty hound to support an ever-widening circle of family and dependents, pay their school fees, find them jobs (not on the land), feast the whole village when he returns there. A man is only as great as he is seen to he. So a District Officer must open a cattle-dip with pomp; a motorcade and a day of speeches. It may be that this will cost more than the cattle-dip but there is no escape.

His prestige is uncertain in the other world as well. The things that visiting Europeans take for granted represent the height of achievement in Africa. There is insecurity, the continuing need to impress; above all the fear that his new friends may find him ‘backward’. This is why governments sometimes deny the existence of famine and disease in their country. Nor is it unknown for the white WaBenzi of the international agencies to connive at the denial - politicians’ susceptibilities are more immediate than distant deaths of the nameless.

Disqualified from life as a peasant.
Photo: Maggie Black

Governments, both Western and Eastern, can do business with WaBenzi. They speak the same language. Five-year plans, co-operation, industrialisation, economic growth; modernized agriculture and huge irrigation schemes; this is the vocabulary of UN-speak, the words of International Man the world over. FAO meetings in Rome; OAU conferences in Addis Ababa: discussions everywhere with the multinational company pushing yet another agri-business scheme; Africa’s elite gets from one to the other and spouts the jargon with the rest. But frequenters of the endless round of cocktail parties in diplomatic suburbs do not refer to those who scratch at dust bowls with a hoe.

Most of the elite can ignore the existence of the real world encircling their dream island of a city. That portion of it that governs cannot. Its overriding preoccupation must be to remain in power. So civil servants and party officials descend on the countryside to control it. In theory these people serve their community. In practice the community serves them.

WaBenzi are good bureaucrats. And bureaucrats love uniformity. Running their countries from the top and seduced by the elegant neatness of overall plans, they ignore all diversity of climate and culture to make their subjects conform. That everyone should grow what he pleases is a policy that horrifies civil servants the world over. Agriculture, like everything else, must be brought into line with the central directives. If it has been decided that maize is needed for the towns and cotton for export. then maize and cotton shall be grown - everywhere. The whole of northern Zambia is unsuitable for maize; the agricultural authorities encourage it none the less and completely ignore millet and sorghum, the traditional crops that do well. The urge to standardize can be bizarre. It has been decreed, also in Zambia, that primary schools throughout the country shall be altered to conform to the same architectural design. There is no money to pay for pencils in the schools.

The WaBenzi of Tanzania favour uniformity too. And that means plenty of top-down control. ‘Ujamaa villages will be created by village people themselves and maintained by them’. So said President Nyerere and gave as his example a cooperative at Ruvuma that had done just that. A national body was set up to establish more Ujamaa villages. Its first action was to abolish the Ruvuma co-operative on the grounds that, having been created by village people, it must have been plotting against the party. You get more uniform villages by using the army.

Tanzania’s actions are no worse than its neighbours’, but its words sound better. Other elites - the Nguemas of Equatorial Guinea - grind their peasants without so much as by your leave. The rhetoric is in any case irrelevant. Guinea-Bissau is a country that contains no industry, no roads - only farmers and an elite which loudly proclaims its dedication to the needs of the poor. To achieve this its national plan is to build a single huge factory to centralise rice processing. The grotesquely unworkable scheme will feed the WaBenzi who run it and will spawn bureaucracy. What it will eliminate is the farmers - through bankruptcy if not starvation.

No government can do business with a peasant because even with the best will in the world, neither can understand the other. Where one sees an inefficient unit of production. the other sees a cow. To make the misunderstanding worse the government’s view is generally mistaken. A cow and the traditional community that lives off it have evolved over centuries for survival. It is unlikely to be bettered by any scheme dreamed up in an air-conditioned office. A peasant life involves feelings, traditions, neighbours. social aspirations. surroundings, ambitions and the future of the soil and of the firewood. Experts can deal only with the mere technics of seeds. But the dreamers’s urge to modernise. to improve. to practice social engineering on the grand scale, will not leave well alone a system that has evolved so complex a balance. The party instructions go out. The half-baked theories are put into action. Chaos and degradation of people and soil result. And ordered, traditional communities are reduced to a condition where only an alienated elite can govern them.

Julian Champkin is a freelance journalist who has worked for
aid agencies in Kenya and Uganda and travelled throughout Africa.


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