“Fears of famine in Ethiopia,” says the New York Times; “Mugabe’s “surreal” policies ravage Zimbabwe’s economy,” adds the Washington Post--and those headlines are just from the past two weeks. Meanwhile, a civil war rages in the Ivory Coast, and generalized famine threatens most of Southern Africa—Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi. And in the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, fundamentalist Islam, complete with the stoning to death of adulterers and the chopping off of thieves’ hands, is on the march.
All that in countries which still have governments, because places—one cannot call them states in any meaningful sense—like Somalia, Sierra Leone, or “The Democratic Republic of Congo” (formerly known as Zaire) do not enjoy even that dubious advantage. And then there are the civil wars: in the Sudan, between Arab Muslims and black Christians; and in Zaire, between Ugandans and Rwandans on the one side (or are there two?) and Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia on the other. Al Qaeda has a presence in Somalia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burkina Fasso, and Liberia, and Libyan troops operate in Central Africa and run interference in West Africa. And, last but far from least, up to 40% percent of the adult population in countries like Lesotho and Zambia, to name but a few, are suffering from HIV/AIDS.
The more recent AIDS pandemic aside, and with a few names changed, similarly depressing headlines could have been read twenty years ago: let us remember Idi Amin, the cannibal ruler of Uganda; Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the convicted cannibal and emperor of Central Africa; Francisco Macias Nguema, the self-described “sole miracle” of Equatorial Guinea, who publicly shot most of his ministers as the band played “Happy Days are Here Again”—all prior to 1979.
It would seem that subsaharan Africa today, just as yesterday, remains behind all other areas of the world—in economic, political and social terms. There are many reasons for this, and, one must say, there are a few flickerings of light at the end of the tunnel.
To begin with, most of the continent’s problems today are inherited from the time of independence. With the exceptions of Liberia, Ethiopia and South Africa, not one of the contemporary subsaharan countries has any history of independent statehood. They are all creations of European rivalries and European bureaucrats in London, Paris or Lisbon. Nor, again with a few exceptions (Botswana, Somalia, and the island states), do they have any pre-independence sentiment of nationhood, divided as they were and are along ethnic and linguistic lines. Declaring the former colonial language the official one is recognition of this reality: only a foreign language could provide a minimum of internal unity.
Once independent, in many cases without any popular demand for independence, country after country fell under the control of European-educated (at the Sorbonne or the London School of Economics) and influenced (naturally enough, by the leftist ideas prevailing there) elites. Socialism, occasionally Marxism-Leninism, was the favorite among the various ideologies that failed in richer countries but devastated Africa. All this was encouraged by Western intellectuals and often paid for by Western taxpayers.
Thus, for decades, Tanzania’s ruinous experiment with socialism was subsidized—at the highest per capita rate in Africa—by the Scandinavian countries. Julius Nyerere, the country’s first president and “father” of African socialism, admitted upon retirement that “We failed.”
And then there was the Cold War. The countries under Soviet rule aside, no other region has lost more during it than Africa. Non-viable country after non-viable country had muddled through for four decades because outside support kept them together: Western economic and military aid; East German, Cuban, or Soviet arms, secret police advisers, and political support. Fear of some marginal state going to the other side attracted attention and support out of proportion, in many cases, to the state’s importance in the larger scheme of things. By 1989 it all came crashing down, and Africa was faced with the unpleasant reality of its actual status in the world. It turned out that the emperor had no clothes. Their vision no longer clouded by perceived geopolitical or strategic interests, outsiders began to see Africa in its real dimensions.
In fact, with some 650 million people, subsaharan Africa’s combined GNP is somewhat smaller than that of Belgium (population: 10 million). As for per capita income ($474 in 2000), it had a negative growth rate of 0.6 percent over the years 1988-2000- or 0.3 percent excluding the region’s economic superpower, South Africa. All this despite the fact that a few, usually small countries (Saõ Tomé and Principe, Equatorial Guinea) are experiencing a major oil boom, and a handful (Botswana, Uganda and Mauritius, e.g.) have competent and successful economic policies and healthy growth rates. Simply put, in the new world of globalization, a few commodities aside, Africa isn’t a significant market, competitor or exporter.
Nor has Africa’s longstanding ability to exploit Western guilt over colonialism retained its potency. Increasingly, taxpayers in the West, if not many intellectuals and the Left, find it harder and harder to attribute 40 years of post-independence decay to 80 years of colonialism—especially since in many countries the statistics suggest that the majority were worse off in 1990 than at the end of the colonial era.
The fiasco of the 2001 UN Conference on Racism in Durban was both significant and, in some ways, encouraging. It was significant because it demonstrated that attempts to mine Western guilt, at the cost of insulting both history and common sense, are still popular in some quarters; encouraging because the most vocal advocates of the most preposterous ideas advanced— “reparations for slavery” and open anti-Semitism—were American racial demagogues and Arabs, rather than Africans.
This is not to say that Africans did not engage in racism, often with economically suicidal consequences. In the 1970s Ida Amin expelled the prosperous Indian community of Uganda and stole their property; Lebanese in West Africa have occasionally been expelled and their property confiscated; and today Comrade Mugabe in Zimbabwe is engaged in a massive ethnic cleansing of whites and Asians and stealing their property, with dire consequences for most black Zimbabweans. A case could be made that Mugabe is a Stalinist dinosaur and Idi Amin was certifiably unhinged, but the fact remains that there was no pan-African condemnation of their actions.
All of which should bring to light the obvious fact, avoided for decades by both African elites and well intentioned Westerners, that outside the conceptual framework of racism there is no such thing as “Africa.” Yes, there is the creation in 2002, through Muammar Qaddaffi’s brainstorm and oil dollars, of the African Union, successor to the famously irrelevant Organization of African Unity, likely to make the latter an example of effectiveness. But to understand how shallow the concept of African unity is in the real world one only has to look at the post-1994 events in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa.
In 1994 the ruling Hutu regime in Rwanda engaged in the world’s most obvious case of genocide since the Holocaust, with as many as 750,000 minority Tutsis murdered in a matter of weeks. An invading force of Uganda-based Tutsis then took power and the defeated perpetrators fled to Zaire. The Rwandans pursued them, and the result was an all-African free-for-all war that, for once, involved only African armies (at least six of them) and their local proxies. It would be hard indeed to blame that war, fought over diamonds, titanium, manganese and copper as much as over territory, on Belgian colonialism. Nor is it easier to blame the recent Ethiopia-Eritrea war over a few patches of bush, with up to a million casualties, on Mussolini’s Italy.
All of these are tragedies, but they are strictly African-made tragedies, and the good news is that Africans and outsiders alike are coming to see them as such. After decades of lies, blaming others, and irresponsible elites and outsider interveners, today Africa is forced to live in a global environment in which responsibility is what matters.
In economic terms, some African states are fighting to erase their well deserved reputation of corruption and bureaucratic red tape and attract foreign investment. Many are oil producing countries, but Uganda and Mauritius are succeeding even without oil. And West African oil is not to be sneezed at: it is clean, offshore (thus minimizing frictions with the locals) and abundant. Though hopelessly corrupt, divided and increasingly threatened by Islamic fundamentalism, Nigeria is for now the major producer. That will change in favor of small states with a need for protection against the likes of Nigeria—which is where U.S. technology, power projection capabilities and capital could come in.
If there is any positive political sign coming from Africa, it is that democracy is making some progress after decades of dictatorships and kleptocracies. A number of the continent’s “big men” have lost elections (Kaunda in Zambia, Diouf in Senegal, Ratsiraka in Madagascar) or have retired voluntarily: Moi in Kenya, Rawlings in Ghana, soon Chissano in Mozambique. That does not a democratic march from Dakar to Khartoum or from Bamako to Harare make, but at least the signs are not all negative.
Because subsaharan Africa is, and is likely to remain, marginal in economic, political and strategic terms, regional self-sufficiency is the key to progress. To a decisive extent, that means South African supremacy. South Africa is the only country in the region with the capital, technological and professional resources and the obvious interest (dictated by its location and experience) to help the entire region, or at least the southern and central areas of Africa. It controls the transportation hubs (ports and railroads all the way to Zaire); it produces the bulk of manufactured goods and energy; and it has a still large (albeit diminishing due to massive emigration) professional and technical mass of qualified experts. If South Africa fails politically or economically, subsaharan Africa has no future outside a few isolated oil enclaves.
The problem is that South Africa does not play the role one would expect or hope. The case of Zimbabwe is a good example. While Mandela or Tutu pontificate about U.S. imperialism and cruelty in using the death penalty, their country’s labor minister, Membathisi Mdladlana, just claimed that South Africa “has a lot to learn” from Mugabe’s Stalinist “land reform,” which has destroyed the economy one of Africa’s few formerly prosperous countries. The minister’s opinions may have been disavowed by his government, but the fact remains that it is Pretoria’s tolerance and indeed active political and economic support that keeps Mugabe’s criminal regime afloat.
Nor is Pretoria the only one at fault. The African Union itself had nothing to say about Zimbabwe’s self-immolation - naturally enough, since Mugabe’s financial sponsor, Muammar Qaddafi, is also the Union’s promoter. And African members of the Commonwealth blocked efforts to suspend Zimbabwe’s membership. Racial solidarity, once again, as in the cases of Bokassa, Idi Amin, etc., trumped decency and indeed rational self-interest.
If there is any problem that attracts the same old tired and demonstrably ineffective calls for more aid, more sympathy and more misguided and indiscriminate outside interference in Africa, is the issue of AIDS. Since the pandemic originated in Africa, the continent has suffered longer than any other part of the world from its impact. Today, although subsaharan Africa represents only 10 percent of the world’s population, it has 67 percent of known AIDS/HIV cases.
There are many reasons for this, and objective causes why it is so difficult to cope with the problem, some independent of whatever African governments could do. A very young population (in some cases 50 percent under the age of 20) means that the most irresponsible age group is unusually large; mass illiteracy and poor infrastructure make education and prevention difficult; and poor health services make treatment almost impossible. More important, however, is the attitude of African governments. With the laudable exception of Uganda, for years they have denied the very existence of an AIDS problem. Even today, the president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, denies that AIDS is the result of a virus, and thus provides the worst possible example to other, far less developed, countries in the region.
Western pharmaceutical companies have given up their patents for AIDS medication, and relatively cheap generics exist—enriching Indian and Brazilian manufacturers. Massive Western infusions of medicines, medical personnel and funds are now available, but, as is the case with aid in general, these only lead to waste, corruption and demands for more.
Massive amounts of free U.S. food aid to southern African countries afflicted by famine are being rejected by Zambia and Malawi because they are genetically modified types of corn or wheat. Suddenly, starving people are denied food because, under the influence of paranoiac European Greens, their governments have decided to be politically correct.
All of this raises the question, is Africa going anywhere? The answer is unclear, and it all depends on how African states and Western partners treat each others. If African states finally decide that they have distinct interests, rather than pretending to belong to a non-existent “Africa,” they could enjoy the fruits of their sound decisions—where those decisions are sound. If not, they should pay the price of failure, just like any other country, whether Bolivia, Nepal or Romania. As for the West, it should finally stop its irresponsibly paternalistic treatment of “Africa” as a perennial victim of everyone except its own rulers, reward the successful and leave the failed to pay the price.