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My take on Africa's millionares

9th December 2012
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When Ventures Africa, a monthly Pan African Business magazine came up with a list of the richest business persons in the continent, a few weeks ago, it also pointed out that there are many more unlisted millionaires out there. By the way, these lucky Africans are millionaires when the total value of their wealth is in foreign currency, but turn out to be billionaires when the value of their wealth is converted to local currency.

In a continent where millions of people are suffocating under grinding poverty and are not sure of their next meal, news about the super rich is bound to be received with mixed feelings. You have those who say the rich men and women of Africa are exemplary, and have demonstrated that Africans can also make it, as far as wealth accumulation is concerned.  Yes, those looking at the issue from this angle will tell you that our rich brothers and sisters provide us with inspiration and confidence. And is an example to be emulated.

We are also told that the super rich engaged in manufacturing, trading, shipping, mining, insurance, agriculture, construction, transport and all sorts of business undertakings, provide employment to thousands of workers. In this way they sustain lives of many souls, as the workers involved happen to have a chain of dependants behind them. It is only unrealistic commentators who can deny this fact. The tycoons of Africa deserve their due where it is applicable.

Generally speaking, the millionaires are credited for boosting the economies of African countries through their tax contributions, and stimulation of economic activities. A few of them turn into philanthropists and support all sorts of causes, including helping the marginalized and the under- privileged. Again this contribution need not be ignored, lest we demotivate the few tycoons committed to the wellbeing of their compatriots - even if some of them simply rob Peter to pay Paul.

But there is another side of the proverbial coin, related to the way most African millionaires with a poor background accumulate wealth in an environment where political and economic governance is wanting, or glaringly poor. Is it accidental that there is a paradox in Africa, reflected in the trend whereby the more the number of millionaires increases, the more the army of the poor also grows?  The question is not academic. There are research findings from credible institutions confirming that Africa is rapidly turning into zone of a few millionaires and millions of poor people.

There is no single and simple explanation to this contradiction. One of the reasons is, of course, exploitation at international level through lop-sided trade in favour of developed countries, and other practices which lead to unfair exploitation of the continent’s natural resources. The second disturbing factor is rampant internal corruption, which has been on the increase during the post colonial period, and efforts to contain it are yet to show satisfactory results.

But who are the key players in the dirty game of corruption in the continent? Top government officials and political leaders, both past and present ones, are on record as being notorious for participation in corruption malpractices. To begin with, they have a big role to play in governance. Hence, they bear responsibility when policies and laws put in place leave room for massive corruption. Secondly, some of them collude with actors outside government to squander the continent’s resources.

This is where analysts raise a few issues about African millionaires, some of whom happen to have risen from rugs to riches within a few years. Being part of the society, their day-to-day activities can be monitored. It is on this basis that some observers rightly note that not all celebrated African tycoons have made their fortune by fair means.

In other words, some of them are reported to have stinking skeletons in their cupboards. Mention all kinds of shady deals designed to steal money from government treasuries, and some rich business persons will have a hand in them, the fact that it is not easy to catch the dealers notwithstanding.

Take the case of the privatization exercise in Africa, implemented as part of the economic policies introduced aggressively by foreign forces. Who does not know that the exercise has enriched some members of the African elite? Tax evasion, common in most African countries, is another malpractice some tycoons are accused of engaging in. In fact some are said to be behind drug trafficking networks. What is the moral behind the story? Simple! Not all that glitters is gold.       

Henry Muhanika is a media Consultant(hmuhanika@yahoo.com)

SOURCE: GUARDIAN ON SUNDAY