Poland has a lesson for Africa

Lech Walesa

Despite the notion that the end of the Cold War would see the ‘end of history’ in terms of ideological rivalry, the three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall has instead seen the emergence of a more contested, competitive, conflicted and contested world, more diverse and with multiple alignment options. Instead, of the once seemingly inevitable spread of a liberal order, interests have appeared to increasingly delink from values.

And there is too a new enthusiasm, it seems, for authoritarianism as a model to ‘get things done’, the sort of ‘benign dictator’ who is not corrupt but efficient, who maintains a paternalistic but admirable benevolence.

Yet the reality of such a model is, for the most part, quite different. Few of Africa’s dictators have proven benign or developmentally astute. Most end their rule badly, usually fatally so. Even the high growth models, such as Ethiopia, which are held up as examples of good if stern governance, have stumbled with political unrest caused by their lack of legitimacy.

Moreover the experience from apparent models elsewhere is at best mottled and their lessons mixed.


Whatever his detractors, the folk-hero Lech Walesa is still going strong, shifting his political influence behind the centrists in the Civic Platform, the 1983 Nobel laureate, proving a popular speaker especially abroad. He expresses concern about the direction of Poland’s current politics.

“The whole world is looking for new solutions … which is why they choose strange politics; in Poland like in the US and France where Macron was elected even without a party. People are dreaming about finding new solutions because the current political structures did not solve their problems.”

To do so, he stresses the need, “in opposition as in government,” for a combination of “the right words, personal spirit, values, peaceful means and a constant belief in God”, the same formula that “we used to defeat the Communists despite their great military strength.

Whatever its challenges, Poland has become a normal country, and quickly. This is evident in Walesa still having a voice, and there being intense competition across the political spectrum from the likes of (European Union head of council) Donald Tusk, who founded Civic Platform, and the leader of the ruling PiS Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who clearly cannot abide each other.

No wonder that more than 80 per cent of Poles say they are satisfed with their lives, up from only half in 1990.

Poland has proven three things:

– It is possible to overcome bad geography. The method of doing so has in part been down to an iron will, sound economic policy decisions, and high-levels of education.

– History, no matter how traumatic and devastating, is thus not necessarily destiny.

– Democracy is not just about the ends, even though it provides the tool to ensure the rule of law, efficient government, fairness, freedoms and rights, including sound governance and development. It is also important in terms of the means itself, the inclusive manner in which the processing of choice is conducted. The words of Pope John Paul II, illuminated at the European Solidarity Centre, have relevance in this regard: “To look into the eyes of the other person and to see in them hope and anxieties of brother or sister, is to discover the idea of solidarity.”

Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation.   This is a small extract from his discussion paper:  History and Geography is not destiny.  Poland’s lesson for Africa.

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