The Conspiracy Against Africa Part 1

Published on 23rd March 2009

Africa is a mess and it’s not going to get better any time soon. That’s the awful truth that’s so hard to face — or to state publicly — for those of us who have had a long, intimate relationship with the continent. Mine has lasted for almost forty-five years. But from the very start, my experiences in Africa began conflicting with my hopes, indicating trouble afoot, foretelling that our utopian dreams were going to lead to crushing disappointments. Of course, we should have known what the entire twentieth century taught: that all utopian dreams fail, not least those wrapped in progressive rhetoric. Still, the reality in so much of Africa has been infinitely more appalling than anything we might have feared.


The regret, disappointment, even the cynicism runs deep, but alongside the many wonderful, committed, and dedicated Africans I know from one end of Africa to the other, the struggle for a more just and equitable continent must continue. All too often it feels like a Sisyphean task.


Besides the fear of spreading hopelessness, there’s a genuine risk in publicly facing Africa’s mess. Reasonably enough, Westerners of goodwill want to know how to account for Africa’s apparently endless list of problems. But behind the question often lurks the unspoken implication that the answer has to do with race: are Africans really incapable of governing themselves?


Most people are aware of the African condition: corruption, conflict, famine, aids, wretched governance, grinding poverty. At the time of its independence in 1957, Ghana — the second sub- Saharan African country to free itself of colonial rule and the white hope (as it were) of the emerging continent — was in development terms on a par with South Korea, near the bottom of the scale. Today, the United Nations’ Human Development Index ranks South Korea twenty-eighth among 177 nations, Ghana 138th. For many, this is a vivid and fair symbol of the African record in the past half-century.


I ran into troubling omens from my first immersion in Africa as a graduate student in London in the early 1960s. When I was working on my doctorate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, one of my friends was Gilchrist Olympio, from Togo, a tiny former French colony in West Africa. Gil failed to appear one day, and on the following day we read in the Times that his father, the first president of independent Togo, had been ousted in the first coup of post-colonial Africa. No one had foreseen the military threat to the new Africa, yet soon enough military governments became as commonplace as the heat.


In white-ruled Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was based for part of my doctoral work, a few of us used to unwind at a dance hall in one of the segregated African townships. After two years of teaching, researching, and regularly demonstrating against the government, I was arrested. Later, I learned that the racist security service knew every rocking Congo jive number I ever danced to and that African informers had been paid to keep an eye on us white liberal troublemakers. In Zambia, living by the Upper Zambezi River, the traditional elite of an anachronistic kingdom struck an alliance with South African apartheid leaders against the new nationalist government of Kenneth Kaunda — another shocking lesson to a nice ignorant boy from Toronto. In 1968, back in Canada, I hosted a zapu “freedom fighter” from Rhodesia, only to listen to him viciously badmouth the competing liberation movement, zanu, composed mainly of members of Rhodesia’s other major ethnic group. He could not have detested his white oppressors more. Much later still, I marvelled at another bitter irony — that I had gone to prison in old Rhodesia to help Robert Mugabe become president of Zimbabwe.

Skulls: Products of Rwanda Genocide Photo:Courtesy

From the relative comfort of Toronto, I became deeply involved in a Canadian advocacy group supporting the right of the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria to secede. Soon after independence Nigeria was already in chaos, having undergone murderous coups and internecine conflict among its three main peoples, and now the majority were prepared to starve the entire Igbo “nation” to death rather than allow it to secede. I soon realized that the Igbo never had a chance, and that the leadership, with our blind support, was prepared to see its people starve to death for a wholly chimerical cause.


Ten years on, I was the director of the cuso volunteer program in Nigeria, where more than 200 Canadians served as low-paid teachers, nurses, physiotherapists, and the like. Then, as now, Nigeria’s reputation on the continent was unique, and overwhelmingly awful. Despite many marvellous Nigerians, collectively the country is belligerent, fractious, and always on the verge of erupting into violence. I feared that many of my young wards would return home as confirmed racists. The problem was convincingly explaining to them why Nigeria is the way it is.


Now the task is explaining why almost all of Africa is the way it is. Finding myself plunged into a study of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, the calamitous wars of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, does not make the task any easier. Not much does. I was frequently in Addis Ababa early in this new century as two of the world’s poorest countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, former allies led by promising new leaders, slaughtered each other’s young soldiers over an economic disagreement. Rural Ethiopia faced a desperate famine, and the government appealed to the world for relief; at the same time, the markets of Addis sold a gorgeous abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and in luxury hotels the sumptuous buffets never ran out. During most African famines, people starve because of a lack of money, not a lack of food. In December 2005, I spoke at a series of conferences and marches across Canada about the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the quasi-genocide in Darfur, and the instability still threatening the Great Lakes region of Africa. It seems as if the horror stories never stop.


Writing in 2001, BBC correspondent George Alagiah noted that since independence there have been over eighty violent or unconstitutional changes of government, and in twenty countries such eruptions have been repeat occurrences. In A Passage to Africa, Alagiah concludes that it is in the nature of African politics that by the time any such statistics are published they are likely to be out of date. Indeed, over the years African leaders have become synonymous with monstrous tyranny — Mobutu, Idi Amin, Abacha, Bokassa, Sam Doe, Charles Taylor, Mugabe, Habre, Mengistu, Moi, Bashir. The list is very long. It is not possible to calculate the millions of people murdered by these men, or the amount of suffering they caused, or the amount of money they stole: Africans slaughtering Africans, Africans immiserating other Africans, Africans brutally exploiting other Africans. None of this is in dispute.


Nor is the corruption so widely associated with Africa an exaggeration. Police, civil servants, even teachers regularly demand bribes in order to make ends meet on their meagre salaries; the well-connected are just insatiably greedy. According to a much-quoted report prepared for the African Union, African elites steal $148 billion (all figures US) a year from their fellow citizens while national budgets often total less than $1 billion a year. African countries routinely dominate Transparency International’s Corruption Perception indices; predatory African leaders have clearly turned the skill of manipulating political systems to their own advantage into a fine art.


Africa is not a poor continent, and not all Africans are poor. Merrill Lynch’s World Wealth Report for 2006 calculates that there are 82,000 African millionaires — a mere bagatelle out of some billion people, but surely a surprising number nonetheless. Their total worth is $786 billion. But instead of providing moderate prosperity for all, many African nations are the most unequal places on earth. You see it immediately: the gated communities and guarded monster homes of expatriates and local elites right next to mile upon mile of squalid townships with their tiny hovels, filthy water, open sewers, piles of rubbish. Even the rich can’t escape the broken roads, the ubiquitous garbage, the gridlocked traffic, the suicidal drivers, the gangs of feckless young men, the beggars so thick on the ground that even liberals keep the windows closed in their air-conditioned suvs.


These are the external signs of the larger economic reality. Of the 177 countries on the undp’s Human Development Index, the bottom twentyfour are all African, as are thirty-six of the bottom forty. Most of these countries can’t be expected to improve their lot because they lack the basic institutions and capital needed to develop. Future generations will likely be more numerous, poorer, less educated, and more desperate. According to the Economic Commission for Africa’s flagship Economic Report on Africa 2005, African poverty “is chronic and rising. The share of the total population living below the $1 a day threshold is higher today than in the 1980s and 1990s — this despite significant improvements in the growth of African gdp in recent years. The implication: poverty has been unresponsive to economic growth. Underlying this trend is the fact that the majority of people have no jobs or secure sources of income.”


Forty thousand branches of international aid agencies now operate throughout Africa. Many make a significant contribution through small local projects. Yet as American travel writer Paul Theroux found when he returned to areas where he had worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, virtually everywhere today things are shabbier and less hopeful than they were four decades earlier. Who can resist sharing Theroux’s disillusion about foreign aid or his dour overall view of the continent forty years later?


In the face of these disappointing developments, African leaders continue to bring shame on their countries. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and his barking-mad minister of health are undermining serious attempts to deal with one of the world’s greatest aids crises. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has systematically devastated his country. In Malawi, which ranks 165 of 177 on the Human Development Index, the newly elected “reform” president chose the huge legislative building for his official residence, bought a half-million-dollar Chrysler Maybach 62 (and, in so doing, kept up with the reckless king of impoverished, aids-ridden Swaziland), and was to have an official portrait painted at a cost of $800,000. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, a long-time favourite of the US and Britain and head of state for twenty years, changed the constitution so that he could run for a third time. He had his leading opponent charged with treason and rape. It is as if these men are deliberately seeking to humiliate their continent in the eyes of the world.


Failed or ruined non-states are commonplace. Angola, Liberia, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, southern Sudan, and the Republic of Congo are all emerging from ghastly fighting, all of it internally driven. The challenges each faces even to reach normal levels of African underdevelopment border on the intractable. Conflicts of varying degrees of destructiveness continue in western Sudan (Darfur), between Sudan and Chad, in northern Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army, in Somalia, throughout the vast Democratic Republic of the Congo (aided and abetted by Rwanda and Uganda). Nigeria is in a state of imminent implosion. The resumption of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a distinct possibility. Across southern Africa, the spread of hiv/aids threatens the very existence of Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, and Zambia; South Africa, whose well-being is key to Africa’s future, has more hiv/aids sufferers than anywhere else on earth save for India.


Perhaps the most depressing phenomenon is the situation of girls and women. Many African countries boast the most egalitarian protocols and regulations imaginable promoting the status of women. Rwanda’s parliament has a higher percentage of women members than any other country in the world. Africa has produced a significant number of powerhouse women as well as impressive feminist ngos. Yet the distance between this development and the reality facing the majority of African women seems unbridgeable. In many African countries, in fact, women have no rights at all — they are regarded by customary law as minors, their lives in the hands of their husbands. From legal status to education to manual labour to social obligations to family responsibilities to sexual victimization, life for many, perhaps most, African girls and women is truly Hobbesian.


This portrait, of course, is not the entire reality of Africa today. The continent is endlessly diverse, and all generalizations have exceptions. Hundreds of millions of Africans are just like the majority of people everywhere — hardworking, trying to cope, and full of the multiple complexities of our species. Nonetheless, it’s virtually impossible not to be stunned by the pages and pages of horrid news that constitute the reality of modern-day Africa in a way that’s not true of any other part of the world. In the forty-odd years since my first visit, the dream of a continent that would show the rest of us new possibilities for the human condition has turned into a grotesque nightmare.


…next week: How do we account for Africa's plight and what should be done?


By Gerald Caplan


Gerald, Principal author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide (2000) has been a senior consultant to the UN Economic Commission for Africa.


First Published in   The Walrus Magazine   



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