Why the African Continent Cannot Pay Debts



Sir Shridath Ramphal was the Secretary-General of the British Commonwealth and a member of the Global Commission on Governance.

Before his appointment as Commonwealth Secretary General in 1975, Sir Shridath Surendranath Ramphal had served as Attorney General of his native Guyana from 1965 to 1973 and as a member of the Guyanase National Assembly 1965-1975. A product of University of London, London School of Economics, and the Harvard Law School, Sir Ramphal is a seasoned lawyer, diplomat, and global statesman.

In this interview, first published in the Africa Forum Journal, he bares his mind on topical issues affecting the African continent.

Sir, you spoke about the role Nigeria ought to be playing at various fora concerning the future of Africa. You lamented that it is unfortunate that Nigeria in the last few years has not been playing that role. Unfortunately, many Nigerians no longer think that Nigeria is important enough to play such a big role. So, I’m just wondering why you think Nigeria is so important to Africa.

Nigeria is the major economic power on the continent. It’s a position, in a sense, maybe, it shares with South Africa. That gives Nigeria not only a great influence but a great responsibility. As the most populous country in the continent, Nigeria carries weight in the international community. What Nigeria says or does, what position Nigeria takes, important industrial countries in Europe, in the Americas, have to take account of it. When Nigeria is wounded, when Nigeria is sick, when Nigeria shoots itself in the foot, then Nigeria cannot exercise that influence. Nigeria cannot play that part or discharge that responsibility. And I’m sad to hear you say that many Nigerians are uncertain about the country’s ability to play that role.

Well, I said so because of the various problems we have had in Nigeria in the last few years. We have problems with federalism, military rule, and we have a situation at the moment in which many young people in the country have become cynical. So, what many Nigerians are saying is that perhaps the first thing to do is to seek out the problems within before we can talk of Nigeria playing any role outside, and the problems within are not strictly problems of forms of governance, it is strictly you know, related to Nigerians agreeing to remain together.

Well, I would agree with that. First of all, I understand that. And I think unless Nigeria recovers nationally, until it becomes stronger again internally, until it becomes well again, it can’t play that effective role outside. So, it is a pre-condition of its playing that external role that it rebuilds, rejuvenates Nigerian society. That is why I think what we must look for is a regeneration of democracy. But in the aftermath of that will come this necessary responsibility which is in the interest of Nigeria because Nigeria will want to ensure that it is part of a continent that is receiving equity, justice in the world, that has adequate training, relationship in the world. So, yes I agree, the first thing is to put Nigeria’s house in order, then the house becomes strong, then Nigeria can discharge its duty to the continent and to the rest of the developing world.

Well, you also spoke about democracy being an important precondition for good governance. But if you look at Africa, you will see that even when you have democracy, it does not always translate to good governance. What do you think will be the problem for African countries?

Well, I also said that democracy is not only about elections. The danger is that we have this assumption that when elections are over, we have an elected government, and then it can be business as usual. So the elected government takes the place of an authoritarian ruler and for five years, or sometimes longer, you don’t really have democracy. That is not democracy. Those are the forms of democracy. Democracy has to involve a change of political culture. It has to be sustained by a belief, first on the part of the political leaders in democracy itself.

When you come to an election, there has to be an acceptance by the ruling party that it may lose an election and the country would not disintegrate as a result. If political leaders or political party in power goes into an election believing that the national interest demands that it must win, then the chances are that democracy will be distorted. So, at the very personal level, the political leadership itself has to accept the possibility of change; that it could cease to be the government; and because democracy works in that way, it will one day have the chance to become the government again. That has been our experience in the Caribbean. We have seen, for example in Jamaica, successive changes of governments. Michael Manley was elected, re-elected and with a great majority. A change of government that took place very orderly and the country benefited. And that could be the experience of everybody.

Sir, you know that part of the problem in Africa is that there has been the argument, specifically in Nigeria, that western democracies are almost opposed to the culture, the traditions of the African people and for us to now have to build a democracy that would be useful to us, we should domesticate western democracy, give it a new meaning at home, but you know, those in power, they interpret that differently. Some say, for instance, that western democracy will require the man who is in power to leave office and another man to come and take over from him, whereas in Africa, kings don’t leave for another man. They reign for life. I don ‘t know what you think about this?

That is not democracy. That is not giving democracy an African flavour. That is frustrating. There must be some fundamentals of democracy; that all systems, all cultures all values must accommodate. And I will say that one of those features, one of those essential elements of democracy, is for the people to determine that the time has come for a change of government, for a change of the political leadership of the country. If the system cannot accommodate such a condition, then in my opinion, it falls short of the democratic ideal and for Africa the assertion that you can have democracy without empowering people to bring about the change in government will seem to me to be a distortion of democracy, it seems to me to be depriving Africa of the reality of democracy.

Again, you made a connection between famine and democracy. I remember you made a point that you hardly have famine, or that you don’t have famine at all, in your democracies; but that you have famine in authoritarian regimes and others. Could this be true also for Africa?

Yes, absolutely true. It was not a statement just like that, it was researched by the most distinguished economist in the world, the man who has won the Nobel prize for economics, Amartyasen, who has done fundamental research on famines throughout the world. These conclusions were essentially his.

So, they relate very directly to Africa. And there are very telling statistics and when you think of it, you can understand, that countries in which people are empowered by democratic process would not permit its leaders to pursue policies that lead the country into situations of famine. It will ensure better distribution. The country may remain poor, it does not mean that democracy is equivalent to prosperity, but it means democracy can show us fairness, can show us better distribution, so that what little the country has is fairly shared.

And a free press is one of the means by which people ensure that this happen.

You also devoted a substantial part of your lecture to the debt issue, and you were saying debt forgiveness is a good option because these African countries cannot pay. You went on and on like that, but is it not possible to look at the issue the other way? Why blame the creditor and support the debtor. If African nations do not go to borrow, there will be no debt to talk about. And even now that we speak of a huge debt burden, many African countries are still borrowing money. Wouldn’t you say that if a man borrows he should pay back?

That, of course, is a general principle. But you get this situation sometimes where the terms of borrowing, and the conditions of borrowing are such that they are inequitable. The situation of a person whose circumstances make him fall into the hands of moneylender at exorbitant interest rates, so that his whole life eventually becomes mortgaged has relevance to societies.

Most of the debts that were encouraged in the beginning by African countries were debts they did not go cap in hand to the international institutions to borrow. They were debts that were outstanding; they were good times of liquidity for the institutions. So the institutions share the judgment about the ability of the country to use the borrowed money properly and to repay as the government itself. But what has happened over time is that the accumulation of these debts and these repayments has reached proportions, which are no longer consistent with the future development of Africa.

Africa cannot pay those levels of debts, and so what you are faced with is a situation in which you have to postpone for the indefinite future the development of the continent. That doesn’t necessarily apply to a country like Nigeria which has resources out of which its repayment can come and in fact, it is only countries like that that are still able to borrow. Most of the poor countries are not able to borrow. So we have to find a solution that is more consistent with capacity and more consistent with justice. You cannot condemn future generations to the burdens that have been generated by this generation and the one before it. As someone has said, the wood that the next generation is going to carry on its head has already been cut. Now, we’ve got to give up that legacy.

But you know some people have reacted to the debt burden in terms of reparations. They say Africa will not pay, because this is a form of reparation. What do you think about that?

I don’t think that is a good argument. I don’t think that reparation is likely to be an argument that will sway the international communities.

A lot of things have been done in the world by a lot of countries. There are many situations in which you can argue that there is need for reparation. Therefore, there will be resistance to the application of the principles only to debt. But there are good arguments for justifying what Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called the need for debt forgiveness in a context where debt payment is now usurious.

I have, myself, researched the history of debt forgiveness, in which major economies in today’s western world were the beneficiaries of debt forgiveness because it suited them, it suited western economies to put on their economic feet in order that future economic prosperity and stability can succeed. And that is happening everyday in the world of commerce where through insolvency and other arrangements, countries are forgiven burdens like debt and are put in a position where they can continue in business: continue to generate new incomes and new profits.


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