WHAT OTHERS SAY: You can’t fake it until it you make it

Thursday December 7 2017


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

We have all read the stories. South Sudan is all but broke because of the war that has ravaged the last four years and the corruption and incompetence of President Salva Kiir’s government.

Most civil servants haven’t been paid for a year. Year-on-year inflation has hit 183 per cent, and the South Sudanese pound has all but collapsed.

Two million South Sudanese have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries, and about 7 million need humanitarian assistance and protection.

Despite that, the Kiir government has chosen to pay a foreign company up to $11 million dollars for drones and security cameras in the crime-riddled capital Juba.

Though I am a technophile, I also know that these kinds of interventions do actually require a minimum level of technological infrastructure and an effective police to work. South Sudan doesn’t have either.

The scepticism becomes justified when one learns that the first cameras will be fitted around State House, basically for President Kiir, the ministerial quarter, and the airport.

However, the most revealing aspect of this is that Kiir went to launch the two drones and 11 cameras.

It revives the question of why Africa’s Big and Medium Men and Women like to launch things – even the smallest ones.

In my parish near the Uganda-Kenya border, some time ago a local bridge broke. The bridge led to a big market and primary schools. Our old man – a fellow who was very sensitive about matters education – wasn’t bothered about the market traffic, but he couldn’t take the fact that children had to make the perilous crossing to and from school. He cut down some of his trees, and fixed the bridge enough for it to be safe for foot traffic.

As far as I know, the community didn’t thank him, nor did he seek their gratitude. Perhaps, not to oversell his altruism, they suspected that he also did it so his morning newspapers could be delivered quickly and dry.

Nevertheless, not too long ago, I saw a photo of a minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo cutting a ribbon to open a “bridge”. The bridge was a crude small thing, about 10 per cent of the makeshift one the old man built. Unbelievable.

Now potholes are a menace in many African – and world – cities, yes, and they need to be fixed. Recently Nigerians on social media regaled us with photos of a state governor in an elaborate ceremony launching the fixing of potholes. Even for a people who have seen it all and are gifted with a rich cynical sense of humour, it was too much.

Kenya too has had its fair share of, especially, governors and County officials inaugurating several absurdities.

So why would a president launch two drones and 11 cameras; a minister open a bridge built of three one-metre-long logs, and a whole state governor launch the fixing of a pothole?

Not to be entirely dismissive, there might be a good reason why people like Kiir do the things they do. As politicians, they actually do know the “people” well, and figure that they understand and appreciate small tangible things. To a mwananchi in Nigeria’s Kaduna state, the filling of a pothole makes a lot more sense than his government signing up to the Paris Climate Change accord – although in northern Nigeria climate change is 100 times bigger an issue.

There are local votes for potholes, but almost none for climate change agreements.

Secondly it’s the illusion of progress, i.e. when you know you are far away from your desired goal, the stuff you do to create the impression and provide the emotional satisfaction that you are getting close to (or have achieved) that final goal.

The advanced form of the illusion of progress was played in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it’s kept alive in North Korea today. They would build Potemkin towns. You are driven along a nice street with beautiful buildings, but they are actually cardboards or facades with nothing behind them. In North Korea, visitors are driven past well-stocked supermarkets, with big juicy fruits, except for one problem – the products are fake.

However, not everyone can fake it until they make it. For Kiir, it is both a failure of imagination and a messed up sense of priorities. The drones are a symbol of failure.