Africa is Outgrowing the Object of Pity Condition

Published on 27th June 2016

Africa is getting out of the pitiable condition that underlined negative stereotypes about the continent. I also want to argue that the future of the continent is bright, even if there are quite a number of things that its people have to do to get to this promise land.

Africa means different things to different people. Nothing brings this reality home to me more than an advert welcoming visitors to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. The advert simply reads: “They call it Africa. We call it Home.”  It goes without saying that Africa is always at the receiving end of global vicissitudes that have been reflected in several academic and policy pronouncements. These negative views have been underlined by issues like civil wars, famine, high levels of poverty, the pressure of the youth bulge, and several others. Against this background, scores of phrases have been employed to describe the continent, including it being labelled the “Dark” or the “Hopeless Continent.” Indeed, a question many have often asked, most of the time rhetorically, is: “How do we solve the problem of Africa”?

One sometimes finds oneself appalled by the extent of the negative views about Africa; frustrated by the reluctance to appreciate the peculiarities of the continent; irritated by the simplistic presentation of African issues; outraged by some African scholars’ implicit endorsements of these negative assertions; disappointed by the lack of recognition of some major positive changes taking place in the continent; dissatisfied by the double standards with which judgements are passed about Africa.

In the various answers provided to this question, one sometimes finds oneself appalled by the extent of the negative views about Africa; frustrated by the reluctance to appreciate the peculiarities of the continent; irritated by the simplistic presentation of African issues; outraged by some African scholars’ implicit endorsements of these negative assertions; disappointed by the lack of recognition of some major positive changes taking place in the continent; dissatisfied by the double standards with which judgements are passed about Africa, and above all, repulsed by the increasing nonchalant responses by some Africans to Afro-pessimism and stereotypical depictions of the continent of their birth.

I want to do a number of things. First, I want to identify what I consider responsible for the negative stereotypes that existed about Africa. Second, I want to explain how things are turning around and how the continent is now becoming a voice to be heard rather than a problem to be solved. Third, I want to interrogate how the world is responding to the new voice of Africa. Fourth, I want to identify some of the issues that can stunt Africa’s gradual emergence, and finally, I want to situate my place and that of King’s College London in the rise of Africa’s voice.

How Africa Became a Problem to be Solved

I have tried in my research to first understand the reasons for all the negative stereotypes about Africa and I came to a number of conclusions. First, I concluded that Colonialism was, without doubt, a “Game-Changer.” I recognise that some people are now trying to downgrade the importance of this historical occurrence in explaining Africa’s problems. More than half a century after colonisation, these people argue that Africa should advance stronger excuses to explain its predicaments; after all, they argue, Africans were not the only people that experienced colonialism and that other victims of colonial rule are now making giant strides. In short, by talking about colonialism after more than half a century of independence, these people think that Africa is merely making a three-course meal out of a sandwich.

I disagree with this position. Yes, I concede that Africans were not the only people that were colonised, so also were people in Asia and Latin America; but Africans were the only people that had their own colonial experience preceded by three centuries of slavery. So there was a case of double-whammy in quick succession. While the consequences of colonialism are just too diverse, let me draw your attention to one of its consequences that is often overlooked – this is its impact on state formation in Africa. The forceful bringing together of people who have very little in common to form nation states has severe consequences. Imagine trying to forcefully create a united Europe where the French, the Germany and the English will all have to live together and elect a single president.

This was what colonialism imposed on Africa and it was on this that the people had to evolve nation-states. I am sure some of you will see the inevitability of instability in the scenario painted above. Indeed, we all know that cementing inter-group harmony among ethnic units that come together to form a nation-state is a long and tedious process. If the Scots and the English are still discussing and negotiating the terms of their association after more than 300 years of living together, nothing different should be expected from the Hausas and Yorubas in Nigeria after only 50 years.

Negative stereotypes about Africa were entrenched because of the inability of Africans themselves to influence narratives about their continent. Indeed, Africa’s negative reputation is based not on the magnitude of the challenges it was facing, but more because it was not in the position to shape the narratives that form global thinking about the continent. Anyone who determines the direction of the knowledge that you consume, dictates everything that connects to your existence.

A second distinct reason why the traffic light always seems to change to red when it is Africa’s turn was the timing of the continent’s entrance into the international system. Emerging just about the time the Cold War was at its peak, African countries got wired into an international system that they took no part in creating and one that was not designed to recognise them.

But having indicted colonialism and external influences, one would be ridiculously dishonest not to concede that there were a number of self-inflicted wounds that brought Africa down. Here, I put considerable blame at the doorsteps of African elites. These elites, be they political, academic or religious, were responsible for some of the most callous acts against their own people: democratising the looting of the treasury, rather than consolidating political democracy; institutionalising brutality, instead of making their population secure; and entrenching nepotism instead of establishing structures around which sustainable development of the continent could be built. Indeed, it is clear beyond any shadow of doubt that, right from independence, Africa has had a tragedy of leadership and this perhaps helps to explain why the continent came to be perceived as a problem to be solved.

But far more than any of the causes identified above, negative stereotypes about Africa were entrenched because of the inability of Africans themselves to influence narratives about their continent. Indeed, Africa’s negative reputation is based not on the magnitude of the challenges it was facing, but more because it was not in the position to shape the narratives that form global thinking about the continent. Anyone who determines the direction of the knowledge that you consume, dictates everything that connects to your existence. The age-long saying that “he who plays the piper dictates the tune” cannot be more appropriate than in the way external narratives dominate thinking, policy and perceptions about Africa.

Even, the politics of knowledge production was, for a long time, not in favour of Africans. For example, right from kindergarten, African children were taught the popular nursery rhyme: “A for Apple,” when in reality most of the children had never seen an apple because the fruit is not produced in many African countries. They therefore had to associate the alphabet “A” with the image of a product produced elsewhere – thus beginning the process whereby the knowledge they are consuming is externally wired. As secondary school students we studied the geography of North America, when we were not encouraged to know the capital cities of African countries apart from our own; in many Universities, the exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte were forced down the throats of History undergraduate students that were not exposed to the activities of Dedan Kimathi, who led the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. In short, all through their history, Africans were gullibly mimicking narratives whose origins and intents they did not fully comprehend. All these were to have consequences and they all contributed to the inconsequential recognition that is often given to Africa.

The Rising of Africa’s Voice

In the last one or two decades, however, things have been changing.  The change began after Africans started challenging foreign narratives about the continent. The original leadership of this emergent African voice came from both policy practitioners and academics. For example, the Adebayo Adedeji-led Economic Commission for Africa forcefully challenged the World Bank and the IMF argument over the introduction of Structural Adjustment policy in Africa and came up with credible, evidence-based and authentic research to suggest alternatives to the policy. A number of African-led research groups, like CODESRIA in Senegal, joined universities like Dar-es-Salam in Tanzania and Ahmadu Bello in Nigeria, to champion the arrival of African-led narratives.

Let me preface my discussion about Africa’s rise with a clear statement of fact: When I say that Africa is now a voice to be heard, I do not mean that the continent is no longer facing major challenges that will keep it on a global watch-list. Before anyone reminds me, I am aware of the problem in Burundi, in South Sudan, in the Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yes. I know that these are countries in the Intensive Care Unit of the Peace and Stability Hospital. I am cognisant of the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria, the Al-Shabbab activities in Somalia and the role of Al Qaeda insurgents in the Islamic Maghreb. Without doubt, these are problems that still face the continent, but they are not in any significant way different from what is happening in many other continents of the world that have not been so negatively stereotyped.

I wish to reflect on a number of key areas where Africa’s voice is getting audible. First, is in the continent’s natural resource endowments. Indeed, more than we think, the world depends on Africa in a number of strategic ways. The continent has about 30 percent of the world’s known reserves of minerals, about 10 percent of oil and eight percent of gas resources and the largest cobalt, diamonds, platinum, and uranium reserves. Africa is home to the second largest tropical forest. It has many of the world’s greatest rivers including Nile which is the longest in the world. Wildlife in East Africa, for example, has attracted global interest and acclaim. One can go on endlessly.

The global impacts of these are remarkable and the world knows this. For example, the US Vice President, Joe Biden, noted recently that the annual importation of about US$50 billion worth of goods from Africa, is keeping at least 250,000 Americans in employment. Also the Republic of Niger, which is the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium, supplies up to 10 percent of electricity for France. The Gulf of Guinea has now become strategic in global oil politics. Ocean surrounding the continent are strategic for global maritime. The examples here can again be multiplied several times over.

From $600 billion in 2000, Africa’s GDP increased three fold to $2.2 trillion in 2013. When it is considered that it took China 12 years to double its GDP per capital and India 17 years to attain the same feat, albeit these are countries, Africa’s three-fold transition in about 12 years is a noteworthy achievement. The continent again boasts of the youngest population in the world, and by 2040 it looks set to have the world’s largest labour force, thus having an opportunity to be transformed into a global economic powerhouse.

Arising from this is the changing attitude to the management of these resources. Whilst in the past Africa’s natural resources were massively exploited without the people being able to question their leaders, now leaders are held accountable. Again, while foreign multinational corporations had previously been able to milk the continent with impunity, local populations are now asking questions. Although as will be pointed out later there are still a number of challenges in the politics of natural resource management in the continent, remarkable progress has been made in this direction.

Possibly because of this and many other factors, the economic situation in Africa is also changing. Of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world, 10 are from the African continent. More than a third of its population have climbed to the middle class. Still on the economy, more than ever before, the figures are now beginning to add up for the continent. According to the figures released by the United Nations, Africa’s average growth of 5 percent is faster than the global average growth, with eight out of the world’s top 10 performing countries coming from the continent.

Indeed, things have never been as good since independence. From $600 billion in 2000, Africa’s GDP increased three fold to $2.2 trillion in 2013. When it is considered that it took China 12 years to double its GDP per capital and India 17 years to attain the same feat, albeit these are countries, Africa’s three-fold transition in about 12 years is a noteworthy achievement. The continent again boasts of the youngest population in the world, and by 2040 it looks set to have the world’s largest labour force, thus having an opportunity to be transformed into a global economic powerhouse.

Socio-economic and infra-structural developments are also improving significantly. Survival rates of infants in the continent have improved by about 36 percent in the last two decades. Even though it still remains one of the poorest in the world, it has been an improvement from what it was before. Over the last two decades, Africa has also made unprecedented progress in the development of education. Sixty million more children in Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in primary school today, with (net) enrolment rates rising from 52 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2011. Enrolment in secondary education has more than doubled from 20.8 million to 46.3 million during the same period as well.

It now seems certain that Africa’s greatest asset is in its population, especially its youths. Presently, more than 60 percent of the continent’s population is under 35 years. These youths are resilient and resourceful. While previously they had seen themselves as the neglected majority in an unjust social system, African youths are now coming out forcefully to be the Voices of the continent. For example, from nothing, youths in Nigeria developed the Nollywood film industry, making it the second largest in the world after India’s Bollywood.

In the area of the establishment of democratic rule, Africa’s voice is also increasing and becoming more audible. Even the few remaining autocratic leaders in the continent are now realising that their days are numbered, and that the numbers are few. With very few exceptions, all the countries in the continent are undergoing democratic transition. Successful elections have been organised in many African countries, with incumbent governments in some cases losing to the opposition. These are developments completely unthinkable a couple of decades ago. Of course, there are still a number of “sit-tighters” and “third-term seekers,” but things are significantly getting better. The continent has moved from an era when incumbents retained power by avoiding elections to one where elections are a mandatory part of democratic processes, however compromised. Although in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Togo, we have had instances of sons succeeding their fathers in the cases of Joseph Kabila and Faure Eyadema, variance of this practice is not without precedence in other parts of the world. For example Sirimavo Bandaranike became the Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) after the assassination of her husband, while not too long ago, Raul Castro succeeded his brother, Fidel, as the Cuban leader. Consequently, a “uniqueness” picture cannot be painted of Africa in the practice of family members succeeding one another in office.

Leaving all this aside for a moment, it now seems certain that Africa’s greatest asset is in its population, especially its youths. Presently, more than 60 percent of the continent’s population is under 35 years. These youths are resilient and resourceful. While previously they had seen themselves as the neglected majority in an unjust social system, African youths are now coming out forcefully to be the Voices of the continent. For example, from nothing, youths in Nigeria developed the Nollywood film industry, making it the second largest in the world after India’s Bollywood – and mark you they did this without government’s involvement. Young musicians across the African continent are matching their European and American counterparts. In sports, African youths are making their mark even in foreign football leagues, with one of them winning African, European and World Footballer of the Year awards all at once. Just last year, Nigeria’s under-17 team won the FIFA World Cup for the 5th time – a feat unprecedented in the history of the competition. Yes, there are some youths engaged in fraudulent activities, especially Internet scams, and their actions should be roundly condemned, but I also believe that it takes the combination of intense greed and unimaginable foolishness to fall their victim. But on the whole, saying that significant positive changes are going on in Africa is definitely not a misplaced utterance.

How The World is Taking the New Forceful Voice of Africa?

The anticipated success of Africa has naturally resulted in the emergence of a plethora of external Afro-enthusiasts who want to hijack this success for their own advantage. Already, both traditional global powers and emerging ones, with the assistance of their academics, are busy defining their long-term strategies for engaging the continent. The dual strategy of warming up to African countries while rapidly buying up their resources is an unfolding pattern. The pressures on Africa from both traditional and emerging powers now seem to be forcing the continent to make a choice between dreadful and terrible or between bad and awful. The growing involvement of China in Africa cannot escape attention here, and the complex ramification of this relationship deserves close watching. As we all know, the three most common words in the world today are: MADE IN CHINA. Hopefully, these will not in the near future be replaced by another three letter word, this time around: OWNED BY CHINA. If this is to happen, Africa and its resources should not be at the top of the list of Chinese acquisitions.

How Can Africa Retain, Consolidate and Advance?

This now leads me to the next question: how can Africa ensure that its “Voice” continues to be heard. First, the continent needs to recognise that its institutions are weak and need rebuilding. Indeed, while my objective in this inaugural lecture is to dismiss, with the fury of an Old Testament prophet, the whole notion of Afro-Pessimism, let me openly admit that I believe that the African continent is suffering from “AIDS”. This time around, however, I am not talking of “AIDS”, as in the disease, but AIDS, an acronym that stands for: “Acute Institutional Deficiency Syndrome”. There are very few institutions across Africa around which sustained and credible structures can be built. Institutions on the continent are either completely weak or selectively efficient. The implications of this can be seen in everything. Consequently, the first step that should be taken is to ensure that the institutions are strong and credible.

Also for the “Voice” of the continent to be heard, the mortgaging of its resources has to stop. Across the continent, foreign countries and multinational corporations are acquiring huge expanses of land under arrangements whose awkwardness is visible to the blind. As all Africans know, land is undoubtedly the most important natural resource in the continent. Its importance transcends economics into a breadth of social, spiritual and political significance. Among other things, land is considered as the place of “birth”; the place where the ancestors are laid to “rest”; where the “creator” has designated to be passed down to successive generations, and the final “resting place” for every child born on its surface. Consequently, every society in Africa sees land as a natural resource that is held in trust for future generations, and the sacredness of this trust should be paramount in the minds of those negotiating the future of Africa’s land. As I always tell my students, in Africa, people don’t fight over diamonds or gold, not even oil. Rather they fight over the land that accommodates these resources. Indeed, in my research into natural resource conflicts in Africa, I have not come across any case where resources like diamonds, gold or oil have caused conflicts; the publicity these resources have had in the security calculus is mainly because of their connections with the prolongation of conflicts – not as reasons for their causes. The issue has always been on land. Therefore, leasing out the land has wider ramifications. In a callous world where multinational corporations and countries bargain with most minimal conscience, African leaders should realise the saying that, in life, you don’t get what you deserve; rather, you get what they negotiate; and that you should always be careful over what you bring to the negotiation table.

This now leads me to a discussion on the place of natural resources in the politics of Africa’s voice, a subject around which I have made a modest contribution to literature. No doubt, Africa is a continent rich in natural resources but poor in governance. It is this poverty in governance that explains many conflicts over natural resources in Africa. Interestingly, my research has shown that there is no direct correlation between natural resources and conflict beyond the structures, processes and actors associated with the management and control of these resources. For example, while diamond was at the centre of conflict in Sierra Leone, the same resource has been responsible for Botswana’s phenomenal economic growth; the gold that has thrown the Democratic Republic of Congo into chaos, is the one enabling South Africa laugh all the way to the bank. In short, the impact of natural resources on the security calculus is mainly a function of the laws and practices guiding the exploitation and management of these resources and not the circumstances of their mere physical presence. Africa thus needs to get the management right.

I would be remiss if I do not talk about corruption – a stigma that seems to have become somewhat synonymous with Africa. But before I do this, let me make two passing remarks: first, although corruption is a major problem in Africa, it is not a monopoly of the continent; the only difference is the politics of terminology that has been used to describe the situation in other parts of the world. For example, what is called corruption in Africa is presented as “sleaze” in another environment, and what in Africa is described as “Bribery”, is repackaged as “Cash for Question” in another context. Second, is the fact that foreign countries and businesses have implicitly contributed to the problem of corruption in Africa. For example, not many people know that until recently paying bribes to foreign public office holders was legally permitted under British law. In fact, business men and women who have bribed foreign public officials could claim tax relief for such disbursements. It was only during the time of Clare Short as the Minister for Overseas Development that this practice was stopped.

But putting aside the issue of terminology and the impact of foreign inducement, it must also be publicly admitted that corruption is a major problem and one that can undermine the effectiveness of the African voice. The continent should, as a matter of urgency, build its institutions and structures to curb corruption and stop wastage. Until the rotten tooth of corruption is pulled out, Africa’s mouth will have to chew with caution.

Also, the continent needs to be more receptive to modern ideas. This position has been put more strongly by another senior colleague, Olufemi Taiwo. Indeed, there is the need to repudiate cultural principles that are antithetical to development. Questions and inquiries should be encouraged; orthodoxies should be challenged; unhealthy conventions should be rejected; useful dissensions should be encouraged; critical thinking should be prioritised; and innovative and path-breaking ideas, especially in youths, should be commended. In short, Africa needs to change. Of course, I know it is difficult to embrace change – as it is often said: the only person who likes change is a wet baby. But Africa and Africans should understand that change must come and certain old practices just have to go. Hiding under cultural practices to avoid doing practical things that can advance the continent is downrightly unreasonable.

But above all, Africa should take over the process of controlling its own narratives. Dogmatic acceptance of narratives from outside is not only banal and devoid of any logical thinking but actually wrong and potentially very harmful. African Universities should stop assuming that excellence is domicile outside the continent. Indigenous erudition has to be encouraged and teaching and research have to be seriously revamped. Also, African intellectuals in the diaspora must engage in constant conversation with the continent. As long as Africans rely on others to recount their experiences, more catalogues of woes should be expected. As the popular African proverb says, “Until lions tell their tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

By Dr. Abiodun Alao

Professor of African Studies at Kings College London.


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