From Live 8 to an African Al-Jazeera

Under the influence of my teenage son, I saw much TV coverage of the Live-8 music concerts across four continents last week to focus attention on Africa’s problems. Live-8 hoped to make Africa the focus of the G-8 meeting of rich countries later in the week. Alas, Africa was eclipsed by the bomb blasts in London. Yet the problems of Africa will not go away. Rich countries recently wrote off $ 40 billion African debt, amidst triumphalist rhetoric of giving Africa another chance. But Africa is in trouble despite three rounds of relief in the 1980s followed by the HIPC scheme in 1999. Africa has received by far the highest aid per capita for decades, and produced the worst per capita outcomes. How can we best ensure that money raised by Live 8 and other sources are not stolen or wasted by thuggish African rulers? How can we use aid to improve accountability and good governance in Africa, something the World Bank and rock stars (Bono, Bob Geldof) have tried to achieve but in vain? I would back a suggestion made by Philip Gouveia in the magazine Foreign Policy. Let funds from Live 8 and other sources be used to set up African equivalents of Al Jazeera, the TV network that has revolutionized the Arab world. That will improve governance in Africa by exposing corruption and waste, by empowering dissenters, and by lifting the fear of citizens that any criticism or dissent will bring retribution.

Historically the world over, opposing the ruler was called treason and punished by death. The notion that dissent is not only permissible but honourable is a very recent western concept, not widely accepted in developing countries. For two decades after independence in India, ex-maharajahs won elections without even campaigning: centuries of indoctrination accustomed their subjects to think that opposing the ruler was both wrong and dangerous. Only after the 1977 elections did the traditional fear of and bogus respect for royalty finally disappeared. Democracy has not come to the Middle East, where kings and autocrats have quashed dissent from time immemorial. Middle Eastern rulers control all politics and all media, using censorship and blunt retribution. This makes citizens fearful of being seen listening to dissent. This pall of fear has been finally been pierced, though not destroyed, by Al-Jazeera, making it a beacon of democracy. It was set up with a grant of $ 140 million from the Qatar government, a tiny principality which saw an uncensored TV station as a way to make a mark in a rich neighbourhood. Al Jazeera today rules the air waves in the Middle East. No ruler can stop citizens switching from state-controlled TV channels to Al Jazeera, which uninhibitedly criticizes and expose all Middle eastern leaders and institutions.

Many US diplomats are stupid enough to view Al Jazeera as an enemy, since it is highly anti-American on Iraq and Israel. Yet even a defence hawk like Ricgard Perle now acknowledges that Al Jazeera, by creating a free media, has become a vital building block of democracy by making dissent permissible and safe for the first time in the region. It has changed the whole relationship between rulers and the ruled by making criticism of and jokes about rulers an everyday matter in households. Democracy means more than elections. All dictators from Mubarak to Mugabe hold elections and make sure they win. Democracy means giving full scope to dissenters to expose the wrongs of rulers and oust them. The first step in that process has to be a free media that encourages criticism and dissent. Today, we see signs of democratic progress in the Middle East. Street protests induced the exit of the Syrian Army (and fresh elections) in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia allowed women to participate in elections. The rules for the next election in Egypt were slightly liberalised. Some Americans claim that Bush’s invasion of Iraq sparked the change.

I would give far more credit to Al Jazeera. Once citizens can freely see their leaders being exposed and castigated on TV, they find it easier to protest, take to the streets, and generally pressure rulers. Something similar is needed to pressure African rulers. According to one estimate, a pan-African TV station can be set up for $ 300 million. This can be financed even by rock concerts, without help from the World Bank or G-8. African countries have many different languages and traditions, so several TV stations may be needed in several languages. Africa has more than enough talented journalists who can do the job. What it needs is donor protection from political interference for independent TV stations that can be financed by sources like Live 8. That is what rock stars like Bono and Bob Geldof should focus on.

What do you think?