Independence: Why nations fail

AS Zimbabweans commemorate — not celebrate anymore — 35 years of independence tomorrow, I have had to think of a good gift for President Robert Mugabe and his ministers to take great delight in as they take a journey down memory lane reminiscing over their heroics of the past.

Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya

As an independence tribute, last year I recommended to Mugabe to read or reread, depending on whatever applies, Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth, a thorough critique of nationalism, imperialism and post-colonial Africa.

It says history teaches us clearly that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism. And that independence, instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the people’s hopes and aspirations, eventually becomes only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.

No leader, however valuable he may be, can substitute himself or herself for the popular will. Above all it speaks of how post-colonial leaders sell their countries to their most terrifying enemy: stupidity.

But this time around I would rather recommend to Mugabe Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The two are top intellectual heavyweights, one a professor of economics at MIT, the other political science guru at Harvard.

I read the book with a great deal of pleasure: it’s written by top scholars, cutting-edge and tackles a vital subject. It’s packed, from beginning to end, with historical vignettes that are both erudite and fascinating. It’s a must-read.

Just this week, I gave the book to a former journalist to photocopy to read. Probingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has puzzled experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?

The narrative, structure and prose are brilliant. It starts by back grounding issues with colonial history and then asks is it culture, the weather or geography? Perhaps ignorance? Simply no!; it says as it dispels established myths.

None of these factors apply. Otherwise, how do you explain why Botswana has become one of the most successful countries in Africa, while other nations, including neighbours such as Zimbabwe, the DRC and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence? It draws case studies from Africa to Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe.

The book takes the graphic example of the twin towns of Nogales, one on the Mexican side of the border, the other on the United States side, asking why does a border make such a world of difference?

Self-evidently, this question matters, because growing global inequality generates other problems: admiration, fear and resentment; rising tides and pressures of immigration and troubles when some nations do not merely regress, but fall apart.

Zimbabwe and South Africa present such an example, and the current wave of barbaric xenophobic violence across the Limpopo speaks to some of these issues.

Scholars have struggled for decades to find a convincing answer to explain why some nations are rich and some poor. Initially, the drift and thrust of research on the issue was technocratic. Later the dominant explanation became that poor countries lacked capital, yet of late it has been that some countries are poor because of leadership and policy failures.

But Acemoglu and Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions, extractive or inclusive, that underlie economic success or failure.

Their argument is modern levels of prosperity rest upon political foundations. They say you need inclusive politics and institutions — not extractive arrangements — as well as order in society to ensure economic prosperity. In the case of Zimbabwe, it’s clear the nation has failed because of its extractive politics and institutions.