Home grown solutions to Africa’s problem

Published on 24th May 2005

Africa has not yet fully recovered from the devastating impact of colonisation. However, the continent still has a lot of potential and it leads the pack in terms of unexploited resources. But that notwithstanding, the continent faces a host of problems, mainly poverty, and only Africans who understand their hardships better can save their own destiny and get the continent back on track.

Reclaiming Africa, a newly published book, offers recommendations on how best to reclaim the continent’s lost grandeur and resources. The book is a rich collection of papers with diverse thematic thrusts that touch on just about every conceivable issue of concern to Africa’s development. The authors move back and forth in time and space and paint a rosy picture of the distant past, craft a gloomy portrait of the present and carve an optimistic sculpture of the future. The ideas contained in the book were presented in the inaugural meeting of the Africa resource Bank held in Mombassa in 2003. The forum sought to get African thinkers together to help solve the problems bedeviling the continent.

James Shikwati, the book’s editor, sets the tempo of a rich discourse in his introductory remarks: “I believe strongly that as an African, I have greater responsibility in changing my situation in order to make my voyage in life comfortable, eventful and full of happiness.” But while looking forward, the book succeeds in jolting Africans to contemplate the catalogue of evils that have been visited on the continent by internal and external forces.

George Ayittey in the foreward compares Africa to SS Titanic, the enormous ship whose captain defied warning about an iceberg that lay in its way. He then gives the example of the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by leftist Mengistu Haile Mariam, and the nationalisation of land, saying all this smacked of bad policies, which are largely the reason for Africa’s underdevelopment. Indeed, Ayyitey, who is from Nigeria, captures Africa’s situation when he says: “….forty years of independence have brought about degrading poverty, appalling social misery, starvation…and gun to the head.”

Ayyitey’s words that “alien and convoluted ideology is responsible for poverty” resonate in Oumar Makalou’s treatise that calls for “market reform and free trade as instruments for sustainable development and elimination of poverty, disease, illiteracy and war.” Makalou, president of a Mali-based economic research centre, says Africa is considered the “basket case and tragedy of the 20th Century” because of weak institutions. He links this with poor negotiation skills. Citing trade losses, interest payments, profit remittances, capital outflows, he shows how Africa is a net loser of resources to the rest of the world.

Starting from the point that Africa was grossly wronged during the colonial era, Shikwati in a paper titled “The prospects for Economic Freedom in Africa”, lays the blame for poverty in Africa at the doorsteps of foreign aid and poor leadership. He draws parallels between the colonialists who seized African property and lack of respect for private property by African governments giving the example of Idi Amin of Uganda.

Shikwati advocates small governments and removal of trade barriers as the panacea to Africa’s underdevelopment. To demonstrate how aid leads to poverty, he points out that aid in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 3.4 per cent of Gross National Product (GNP) in 1980 to 16.3 per cent in 1995, while sub-Saharan Africa‘s contribution  to world trade declined over the same period. He thus proposes that trade, rather than aid, is the way forward for the “continent-sized beggar”.

But while the west is blamed for historical atrocities and negatively secured policies, Fredrick Chelule, in a section titled “Intra-Africa Trade” suggests that Africa is its own worst enemy. He points out that the key trading partners for African countries have always been the western European countries, rather than fellow African nations. Predictably, he says the Africa-Europe and North America relationship is often skewed in the disfavor of Africa.

Marian Tupy in “International Barriers to Trade in the Developing World,” says: “It is simply not right that a cow in Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) countries lives on $2.5 a day, while billions of people around the world live on less that $2.” Another way of looking at the subsidies from the Western Europe and North America that continually sink Africa into the abyss of hunger, war and disease is to consider what the subsidy money could do. With the $347 billion allocated to subsidies in 2001, “you can fly the 56 million cows in these (rich) countries once around in the world every year-business class –with plenty of change left over. If they are willing to fly coach, the cows could also be given $2800 each in pocket money to spend in tax-free shop during their stopovers in the US, the EU and Asia.” As for the effect of agricultural subsidies by the rich nations, Tupy points out that the resultant “agricultural surplus is often dumped on the world markets, depressing prices and undermining unprotected farmers.”

In “The Lost Sciences of Africa”, Ivan Van Sertima nostalgically extols the great exploits of our ancestors, as the basis for asserting the place of Africa in world civilizations. For instance, “between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago, Africans living on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania produced carbon steel using a method that was technologically more sophisticated than any [of those] developed in Europe until the mid 19th century,” he writes. Other developments that predate European invasion include astronomy in Kenya and Mali, together with navigation, mathematics, architecture and engineering, agriculture and science, medicine and writing systems. Particularly impressive among African inventions of yore is what is known as the Great Zimbabwe, a city-state made of stone, which the European colonisers are said to have looted before attempting to suggest that it was not African.

Peter Kibas focuses on “Entrepreneurship: Key to Africa’s development”, and suggests that self-initiatives are best placed to address the question of unemployment in Africa. He says the job market, especially the formal sector, has limitation for absorption of vast numbers of African youth who are emerging out of institutions of learning. In the case of Kenya, he proposes a commission to look into ways in which the entrepreneurial culture could be enhanced.

Focusing on conflicts on the continent amounts to digging below the surface. Chris Huggins says: “Conflicts in [Africa] are highly interlinked, with political and military alliances, refugee movements, and ethnic solidarities tying the fates of a number of countries.” He argues that ecological reasons contribute to the armed conflicts in the Great Lakes Regions, from the fight over agricultural land in Rwanda and Burundi to “forced population displacements by groups bent controlling trade in coltan, timber and other natural resources” in the DRC.

Indeed throughout the paper, evidence of meddling by foreign business interests in local connections is evidenced by the fact that prolonged war has been witnessed in the resource-endowed parts of Africa. The “resource wars”, as Huggins puts it, have nothing to do with ideology. He identifies “a link between significant oil export sand high risk of conflict and a correlation between “lootable” commodities (such as coltan, gemstones and drugs) and a long duration of conflict.” Closer home, an analysis of the conflict of Kenya-Uganda border between pastoralists also settles on the fact that scarce resources is often the motive.

Kennedy Mkutu says in his paper: “Drought has increased steadily, reducing the amount of pasture and water available. This has provoked greater need for movement and made clashes (between the Pokot, Suk, Sabaot, Karamojong, Turkana and Sebei communities) more likely.” He identifies a worrying trend that ought to be arrested in good time saying Somalia-style warlords who thrive on business for cattle raiding and who have a link with international arms merchants are emerging. He also says that livestock stolen from places such as samburu end up in Dagoretti market in Nairobi, which is many kilometers away. Mkutu’s paper digs deep into the cultural motivations for cattle raiding. For instance, he says, young unmarried men engage in the practice to pay bride price.

Lack of exploitation of Africa’s natural resources is the theme in “Environmental Colonialism”, a paper by Robert Nelson. In a refreshing look at the African environment, Nelson perceives a religious aspect. “The tourists who flock today to Africa’s national parks are a modern version of pilgrims who have long flooded Rome to visit the Vatican,” he reckons.

In “Without Kenyatta or Moi”, Charles Khamala says the middle class attachment to the ruling elite might roll back to the gains made in political democracy in Kenya and other societies.

The book \'Reclaiming Africa\' can be purchased online by visiting http://www.lfb.com/index.php?stocknumber=IL8985. It is also available in leading bookshops in Nairobi Kenya.

The Standard Monday, May 2, 2005 Pg 10 Monday’s Big issue




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