“I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.”
Nelson Mandela (1918 – ); 2000 Interview with “National Geographic”
The President’s week-long, $100 million trip to three African countries, while unusually expensive, served to highlight the promise of the continent, as well as the challenges it faces.
In a sense, we are all “out of Africa.” Central, eastern Africa has been widely accepted as the origin of humans, as evidenced by discovery of the earliest hominids and their ancestors, which date back at least seven million years. About 64,000 years ago, the exodus from Africa began and the world as we know it began to be populated.
It is a continent filled with contradictions. It is the second largest, both in size and population. It has some of the most arable land in the world, yet must import much of its food. Africa is home to some of the richest mineral deposits, from oil and gold to bauxite and manganese, yet it is the poorest continent. An estimated 50% of Africa’s population of a billion people lives on less than $1.25 per day. Wikipedia estimated that in 2003 the average poor person in sub-Saharan Africa lived on 70 cents per day, and was poorer than in 1973. Nine of the world’s ten poorest nations are African. Seychelles, Africa’s wealthiest country, is ranked 38th by the IMF on the list of richest nations. The continent is comprised of 54 fully recognized states and, according to UNESCO, at least 2000 languages; though 85% of the population speak one of fifteen languages. It is a place that has been exploited by European colonialists for its minerals, and served as a source for about eighteen million slaves over thirteen centuries, of which an estimated twelve million were sent to the new world during a four hundred year period.
It became common to describe Africa as the “dark” continent, a term ascribed to Henry Stanley of Dr. Livingstone fame. After a three year trip ending in 1877, Stanley wrote of his travels: Through the Dark Continent. The word “dark” was used to describe the mysterious nature of the land, a place largely unexplored when Stanley first visited Africa in 1871 in search of the explorer David Livingston. Even today, the continent conjures excitement and risk. In Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen wrote: “You know you are truly alive when living among lions.” While Africa does have nearly impenetrable jungles and dangerous animals, the word “dark” badly misrepresents a continent that spans the equator and includes some of the planets largest deserts, widest plains and most beautiful vistas.
In the two decades following World War II, European colonial powers vacated Africa. It had been the last area of the world to be colonized, which, with the exception of places like South Africa, did not happen until the final decades of the 19th Century. European imperialists, desirous
of recouping their investment, were reluctant to give up their colonies. When they did leave, they left behind a vacuum, which, not unnaturally, was filled by militaristic dictators. During the quarter century from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, Africa experienced more than 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations. Understandably, democracy has been slow to take root. Nevertheless, some progress has been made, despite periodic military coups, such as we have seen in Egypt this past week and Mali experienced last year. But democracy, while illusive, is still desired by most. Adam Nossiter wrote eloquently a year ago in the New York Times: “what remains constant is both the aspiration and discernment of the people…The ordinary citizens wanted a voice and seemed to know…that democracy was the best way to get it…Once glimpsed, democracy was vigorously fought for; once achieved, it was jealously guarded.”
Besides what appears to be a gradual shift toward democracy, Africa’s opportunities lie with its rich resources and its relative youth. Wikipedia reports that Africa holds 98% of the world’s chromium, 90% of its cobalt and platinum. It has 70% of its tantalite, a third of its uranium and 64% of its manganese. The continent holds 50% of the world’s gold and 30% of its diamonds. It is the largest exporter of bauxite, and a significant exporter of oil. Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, Angola, Egypt and Sudan are among the world’s thirty largest oil producers.
The median age in most of Africa is under 25. In contrast, the median age in the developed world (and China) is over 38. Youth, everywhere, provides the essence for future economic growth. Abetting its potential was the formation of the African Union (AU). Eleven years ago today, the Union was launched in South Africa. It replaced the Organization of African Unity and is comprised of all African nations except Morocco, which opposed the membership of Western Sahara as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Among the AU’s objectives are: greater unity and solidarity between African countries; accelerating the political and socio-economic integration of the continent; promoting peace, security and stability on the continent, and promoting democratic principles and institutions. As Hamlet once said, “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” The AU’s headquarters are in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and are housed, significantly, in a complex built by the Chinese, as a gift from the Chinese government.
But Africa has enormous challenges. There are at least 22 ethnic groups in Africa, comprised of at least 10 million people, but the total number of ethnic groups is estimated at 3000. There is no common language or heritage. Authoritarian governments outnumber democracies. While we know that the creation of an African Union is a good thing, Europe is exhibit A in the difficulty of promoting such a pact. While much has been done in limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS, healthcare remains a serious problem. Africa accounts for 90% of Malaria deaths. Deadly diseases like Cholera, Tuberculosis, Ebola and Meningitis infect millions of Africans every year. One in nine children dies before the age of five.
While the United States and the EU remain China’s largest trading partners, Africa’s exports to China increased more than sixty-fold between 1998 and 2010. In contrast, during those same dozen years trade with the U.S. increased five-fold. China’s share of African’s exports now account for 15%. According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment, China’s aid is more mercantilist, while the America’s is more humanitarian. There is irony in the fact that a Communist dictatorship in China seems more interested in encouraging economic growth in Africa than the United States. Our efforts are humanitarian, but often come across as atonements for decades of European colonialism. We appear conflicted. When in Johannesburg last week, President Obama, instead of celebrating the economic progress that had been made, warned of the continent’s future economic development on climate: “If everybody has got a car and everybody has air conditioning and everybody has got a big house, well, the planet will boil over…” We must continue humanitarian aid, but our focus should be on helping them grow their economies,
not scaring them into staying as they are. To a large extent, pollution is a function of emerging nations struggling to become rich. How can we, in good faith, prohibit progress?
The future of Africa should be virtually limitless, if domestic politicians and world leaders allow it. Political and economic freedom are fraternal twins, born in a manger comprised of human rights and constructed under the rule of law. It is in our and the world’s interest to promote both. Africans are poor, not because of a lack of resources or labor, but because over the decades resources have been expropriated and labor exploited – first by colonialists and more recently by native corruption. The problems they face are the consequences of men. Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in a South African prison and who turns 95 next week, once wrote: “During my lifetime…I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society…It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His words are ones that hearken to our Founders. In his recent book,