Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Where is Africa Going?

Opinion by Robert E. Gribbin

I get asked this question a lot. My usual response is that some parts of Africa are doing quite well. They are vaguely democratic, politically stable, socially at peace and making satisfactory economic progress. A number of wars have ended in recent years. However, at the other end of the spectrum stands Zimbabwe, which is going to hell in a hand basket. Sudan is mired in never ending conflict; ditto for Somalia and the Congo. Yet that thumb nail sketch does not do justice to the successes and failures on the continent. This piece probably won’t either, but it is intended to provoke thought about the current situation, what might transpire in the next five years or so, and what the U.S. could be doing about it.


In looking critically at the last decade, one must conclude that Africa is better off. There is less conflict, more democratic governments and more wide-spread economic growth. More kids are in school, roads have improved, there is better water and sanitation, communications have evolved, for example independent FM radio stations cell phones are everywhere. The continental economic growth rate exceeded five percent in 2007 and is above six percent in 2008. Economies are better managed, private sectors freer and trade more widespread. African nations as a group are taking more responsibility for the continent, both in terms of regional security – peace keeping forces in Sudan, Somalia and Ivory Coast are African - and in terms of economic and social progress encompassed in the Millennium Development Goals to which they have subscribed. A few nations like Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius, Mali and Rwanda have made dramatic economic progress and many others now have economic growth exceeding population growth.

American Interests

At the outset, let’s enumerate American priorities so we can keep them in mind as we dissect the issues. First, we recognize that it is not our sole responsibility to “rescue” Africa from its ills, but we do have an obligation to help. Furthermore we have interests in Africa that we want to protect

I would sum up our interests as follows:
-- access to oil (Africa currently supplies about 20 percent of our imports. This should rise to over 25 % within five years.)
-- containment of international blights – terrorism, drugs, trafficking in persons, illegal migration, AIDS, malaria.
-- reduction of conflict (Africa currently has four active wars – Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia/Eritrea, and Congo. Plus hot spots in Chad, CAR, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Zimbabwe.)
-- humanitarian aid to the vulnerable (usually victims of conflict, natural disaster or pervasive poverty).
-- trade and investment opportunities (American know-how and capital ought to be competitive).
-- African support in international fora (In UN institutions, Africa often holds the swing votes, but casts them in unhelpful ways).

Global Issues

First global issues hit Africa hard. Climate change that results in unpredictable weather, especially drought, generates enormous problems for the several dozen nations of the Sahael, southern and eastern Africa that fall into the crescent of dryness that circles the center of Africa. With poor rains food production becomes more seasonally precarious. Obvious life for a hundred million subsistence farmers becomes more uncertain as well. Some will starve. Many will be less well nourished. Since the west is committed to helping to alleviate food deficits, the west will be expected to pony up hundreds of millions more tons of food – and that when our production costs are sky rocketing. One bright spot in the nutritional picture is the innovation of a peanut butter condensed milk concoction, which when fed to malnourished children turns them into healthy active youngsters within weeks.

Climate change will exacerbate the existing tendency for urban migration. Millions more people will move to towns and cities seeking alternatives to hard scrabble farms. Pastoralists too will move with their animals into areas erstwhile inhabited by farmers thus exacerbating conflict over land and water. Such tensions already under pin the Darfur crisis and have been felt across the Sahael for decades.

Water is a key resource in Africa; not only in the dry lands but elsewhere when used for irrigation, hydropower and most importantly for better health. Improved management of water and the provision of potable water is the essential environmental/health issue for the continent.

Sustained high fuel costs could cripple the modern sectors of Africa’s economy. These are the sectors that market cash crops, organize small to medium businesses and create jobs. They are, in fact, the sectors where broad national economic growth occurs, but instead of turning a profit, entrepreneurs risk finding themselves looking at deficits. For example, many bus and truck companies will fail and among other victims will be the burgeoning number of private airlines.

National treasuries will run up extra debt. Normally they have to foot the bills for regular governmental operations, but since most are overcommitted to existing bare bones operations, higher costs will result in increased debt. Thus in five to ten years, the world community will certainly need to re-engage in another round of massive debt relief for Africa. Meanwhile, any excess capacity in national budgets that might have been used for economic development will simply have disappeared along with the anticipated projects. Government generated growth will stall.

Yet there are always silver linings and unintended consequences. Higher fuel costs will have marginally less impact on subsistence farmers, so life at the bottom of the pyramid won’t get much worse. Similarly, higher fuel costs should slow the (often illegal) exploitation of timber along the western coast and in the Congo basin. Higher oil costs are speeding up development of more effective solar and wind energy alternatives. Since all of Africa is blessed with sunshine and wind in abundance, improved technology will have positive consequences.

On the other hand oil producing nations will accrue windfall profits. While all this black ink will look good from afar, few of these nations have done credible jobs in using wealth for the benefit of their citizens. Even though with greatly enhanced revenues there will probably be a better stream of government resources trickling down, the scope of corruption these societies are likely to experience boggles the mind.

A Little List

Let’s look at several countries and speculate how they might fare in coming years.

West Africa

First, Liberia. The reality is that Liberia has surprisingly emerged from several decades of strife. At the moment it has an effective president in Ellen Sirleaf Johnson as well as the attention and support of the donor community. Liberians are breathing sighs of relief, but their nation remains on life support. Should either of the supporting pillars be knocked away, the slide back to degradation and violence will be quick. Part of the solution in Liberia (as is true for all nations of the continent) lies in institutional development. The nation needs a viable constitution, a functioning judicial system and an effective police force. It does not need more warlords, or even much of an army (which in some fashion or another caused most past woes). It needs a better educated public (much of Liberia’s human capital remains in exile), better health systems, improved roads, a resurgence of rubber planting and effective exploitation of iron and timber. For the time being the U.S. is invested heavily in Liberia’s future, but should Liberia’s leadership change or progress deteriorate, American commitment might well waiver.

Ghana earns strong economic and political marks for achievements of the past two decades. It seems to have a broad based viable economic and political system, but Ghana’s trading economy will be hard hit by higher fuel prices. Because much of the stability is due to the effective stewardship of President John Kufor, the test for Ghana will be a successful transition to the next generation of leaders.

Sahaelean nations – Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger – have done surprisingly well over the past several decades. They were most impacted by the terrible droughts and famines of the seventies and eighties and yet have survived and thrived. So perhaps, my consternation about climate change is overstated. For the most part – except for uranium in Niger – these are agriculturally based economies where issues of arable land and water/rain availability are crucial.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest, most populous, richest and most politically complex country. Money has made all the difference. Nigeria is a vibrant energetic place where schemes legal and illegal are the staff of daily life. Once a major food producer, Nigeria now uses its oil wealth to import food. That sort of describes how the economy has shifted away from self sufficiency to living off the fat of black gold. Nigerians’ sense of entitlement is strong. Direct oil related business is good, indirect oil financed business – banking, real estate, trading goods – is also good. Finally, all government revenues both at the federal and state level are oil generated and very good for whoever has the political clout to access them. Oil is both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately the blessing has not been well used; in particular little economic or social development has occurred in oil producing states. This has engendered ongoing anti-government, anti-oil company violence that shows no signs of dissipating. Lagos, probably Africa’s largest urban melting pot seethes with poverty and crime, some of the latter now tied to international drug trafficking. Even in the northern regions that once benefited from southern wealth, factories lie abandoned on account of the collapse of the national electrical grid and rail system. Many ask where did the money go?

Naturally oil under pins politics where religion and tribalism also count. Heretofore, Nigeria has shifted the presidency (both via election and coup d’etat) between Yorubaland in the west and the Islamic north. Iboland in the east had its one unsuccessful president in the beginning, but since the mid-sixties civil war has been excluded from national sweepstakes. Current chief of state Yar’Adua came to power via a fraudulent election in 2007, but once ensconced in power has proven to be fairly effective. Should he not live out his term(s), it is unlikely that ineffective Vice President Goodluck Johnson would be permitted to succeed him. A military takeover, pending election (probably fraudulent) of another northern president would be likely. Meanwhile, economic chaos in overdrive will keep Nigeria from reaching its potential.

Conflict in Central Africa

Chad located smack dab in the center of the continent is the meeting place for every woe. Its history of civil strife pits southerners against northerners, blacks versus Arabs, pastoralists versus farmers, tribe against tribe and even internal violence within tribes. Zaghawa chief of state Idress Deby rode Sudanese support and French acquiescence to power ten years ago. Failing in health, he is now pressed from all sides: his Zaghawa brothers believe he has not sufficiently supported the Zaghawa component of the neighboring Darfurian rebels, the government of Sudan who believes he is supporting them, indigenous Arab tribesmen who want their turn at the trough, majority southerners who want the newly found oil resources from the south used in the south. All this against the back drop of spreading drought and the presence of over half a million Sudanese refugees. Meanwhile Qaddafi continues to meddle, but the French monitor and step in from time to time to preserve the status quo. Could it get worse? Yes, and it probably will as Dafurian issues will continue to overflow and will compound and complicate this troubled hot spot.

Is there hope for the Sudan? Only cockeyed optimists see matters falling into place. This will require full observance of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the southern peace treaty that provides for power sharing between the north and south. Secondly, provisions regarding the future of the oil province of Abyei must be adhered to (this means letting the province join the south); third, separation of the south (that will undoubtedly be chosen by southern voters via referendum scheduled for 2011) must be permitted. Fourth, the government in Khartoum must begin to deal responsibly with Darfurian rebels and the international community. Finally, the onus is also on Darfurian rebel leaders to forego internal bickering, posturing and war lording and truly seek peace – a stance that they have thus far eschewed. Achievement of this rosy scenario probably means a change of regime in Khartoum. The problem there is that the current leadership of hard liners is well dug in. There will be no democratic evolution and any sort of a palace coup would just be a change of faces.

The prognosis for Sudan is bleak, but the looming separation of the south is key. Should that happen with only a little violence, rather than a return to full scale warfare, then the Sudan will probably begin a breakup into component parts – an independent south, an autonomous west and a rump state in Khartoum. Because the Bashir regime in Khartoum has much to lose when/if the nation divides, it will be predictably violent and very dangerous vis a vis its opponents, both internal and external, i.e. those nations, including the U.S., that are pressing for evolution.

Change, but not dramatic change will come to several central African states. Long term Presidents Bongo of Gabon and Biya of Cameroon will pass on, but the leadership of each nation is likely to find suitable replacements. Tiny Equatorial Guinea that sits on an enormous pool of oil will create dozens of billionaires (from the President’s family) but violent repression that is the hallmark of politics there will not change. Finally, the Central African Republic will remain politically unstable and economically deprived no matter who comes to power.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is currently hailed by some as a success story, a nation that is retreating from the abyss of total chaos. True, with UN help the Congolese government of Joseph Kabila achieved elected legitimacy. Plus, a new constitution decentralizing government was adopted and relative peace prevails throughout much of the land. The Kivu provinces in the east, however, remain quagmires of violence, mistrust and tribal antagonisms. More than half a million citizens are internally displaced and even then threatened daily by a mish mash of a genocidaires, Mai Mai, vigilante forces and Tutsi militias – not to mention the newly reconstituted national army. To the extent the east is being held together it is by virtue of the UN peacekeeping operation. Elsewhere in this vast nation, the writ of government rarely writes. Education and health systems are rudimentary, there are few roads and no functioning judicial systems. As in years past, corruption remains the motor of politics and business. Exploitation of natural resources – diamonds, copper, cobalt, coltan, rubber, timber – continues apace. The faces of the exploiters have changed over the years from white to black, and now include Rwandans, Ugandans and Zimbabweans, but their disrespect for legal convention remains steadfast.

I suspect a more viable peace will gradually emerge in the Kivus. As that occurs, external attention to the Congo will again wane and the nation will be left to struggle with its overwhelming problems. The devolution of authority to the provinces holds some hope for more accountable government locally, but the success of this venture has yet to be registered. So far, regional parliaments have just brought the practice of corruption closer to home. Without the UN’s money, expertise and MONUC’s (the UN Peacekeeping Force) transportation assets, Congo is not likely have another “free and fair” election.

East Africa Rebounding

In the fourteen years since genocide, Rwanda has rebounded nicely. Today the nation enjoys peace, social stability, ostensible democracy and growing economic prosperity. Given where it has been, Rwanda is indeed a success. Yet, issues remain. It is still a very poor overcrowded nation with no land to spare for younger generations. These folks will have to be absorbed into the economy in ways other than subsistence farming. More unsettling is the fact that political power rests in the hands of a small oligarchy that has foregone opportunities to widen the participatory envelope. Instead they have closed it. Even though this group headed by President Paul Kagame certainly means well and is operating with the nation’s best interests in mind, the fact remains that it is a minority, albeit with the veneer of majority endorsement. That being said, although hard hit by higher fuel prices (Rwanda is the only African state two borders from the sea) Rwanda will do well over the medium term. Over the longer term, however, some mechanisms to foster greater political inclusion and to permit wider latitude for dissent will need to be devised in order to keep the nation on a positive path.

Despite all its woes, neighboring Burundi appears to have found that path. The end of civil war brought multi-party, multi-ethnic democracy to Burundi in 2005. This was a true social revolution as power realistically transferred to the majority Hutu group, but with protections and inclusions for the Tutsi minority. While welcoming this dramatic change, the international community has paid mostly lip service to it. Hoped for support has not materialized. The peace divided has been low. For the most part Burundi is being left to forge its own way. So far, Burundians are doing well. One note for the future is that as was the case in Congo and Liberia, Burundi’s last election was conducted with considerable assistance from the UN. Such help is not likely to be available in the future.

Other nations in East Africa have been doing their own elections for a while. Tanzania has the best record in having changed presidents now three times. Enlightened policies have revived its once moribund economy as well.

Kenya’s 2008 elections were properly done. Challenger Odinga probably won, but a cadre around the loser, President Kibaki, hijacked the results. The resulting crisis tore the tribal fabric of Kenya asunder. Days of violence resulted in hundreds dead and tens of thousands chased from their homes. Civil war loomed. Fortunately, heads were knocked together and a compromise cobbled out of the debacle. In a decidedly African manner, the protagonists joined together in a unity government. Political squabbling returned to the halls of Parliament and the cabinet room rather than being fought out in the streets. This boded well for resumption of economic activity. Kenya will adhere to this compromise political structure with two big men on top – President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga - pending a revised constitution that implants an independent neutral electoral commission. During the next scheduled election Kenyans and the world will insist that shenanigans be absent.

Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni’s leadership since 1986 achieved status as a dynamic, forward looking, and progressive nation. However, as he has gotten older Museveni has become inflexible, especially with regard to the termination of his stewardship, but his time will come. Uganda has matured from the bloodletting and divisive politics of the Obote and Amin eras and is poised to make a transition from Museveni to an elected successor. This risks being a noisy, even nasty process, but should occur in accordance with the constitution.

Southern Africa Imbroglios

Further south in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has proven himself incapable of seeing that his time has come and gone. Now nothing more than a vindictive irascible old man, Mugabe’s cling to power is both his choice and that ordained by a vicious set of thugs determined to keep ZANU-FP on top - and their fortunes with it. Consequences for the people of Zimbabwe be damned. And they are damned, damned to needless poverty and hardship in a land that once flowed with prosperity. It could again, but will now await God’s decision on Mugabe’s earthly tenure. Sadly, a military coup will most likely follow bringing more of the same misery.

South Africa lays claim to predominance in southern Africa and rightly so. Compared to other states it is an economic giant. South Africa’s economic might will continue. It’s economy is diverse and as some sectors flourish – mining for example – others commercial farming for example, might stagnate, but a balance will ensue.

President Mbeki has been reluctant to use South Africa’s political prominence in positive ways. He has not demonstrated leadership in confronting Mugabe – despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans illegally migrated to South Africa to escape hopelessness at home. Mbeki’s rejection of universally accepted truths about how AIDS spreads caused consternation about his reasoning abilities. Although claiming a mantle of liberation and thus new approaches to problems, in international institutions South Africa rarely deviates from tired third world formulas dating from the cold war era designed to thwart and antagonize rather than to solve problems. Thus, the west does not find South Africa and the African states it influences reasonable interlocutors on the issues of the day ranging from human rights to nuclear proliferation.

Mbeki will pass the baton to the next ANC president, Jacob Zuma in 2009. Zuma is a bit more modern, but it remains to be seen if he has the moxie to be a real regional leader. Observers more attuned to internal South African issues than I judge that keeping the multi-racial/tribal political and economic coalition intact will become increasingly difficult in future years. The consensus that fostered post-apartheid South Africa is fraying as under pressures from all sides. The honeymoon is definitely over and harder, more divisive issues – sharing wealth, land tenure, job creation, tribalism, immigrants, government intrusion into business, etc. – will be the grist of politics in years to come.

Always Trouble in the Horn

The Horn of Africa will for the foreseeable future remain mired in problems of its own making. The stalemated war between Eritrea and Ethiopia will go nowhere because the two bull headed chiefs of state have too much of their personal egos on the line. This has consequences, especially for Eritrea because this small state has never really had the time to grow into its own. Now its populace adheres to a war footing where hardship will not abate.

In Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles has become increasingly autocratic and rules from an even narrower base of minority Tigrean support. The cost of war and antipathy of the majority of Amharic citizens conspire to keep economic growth low and a wave of out migration strong. Meles has seized opportunities - to wit the invasion of Somalia - to burnish his standing with the United States. For the time being that strong anti-terrorism stance has deflected anti-democracy criticism, but Ethiopia’s deteriorating record bears careful scrutiny.

Somalia will make little or no progress during coming years. Ethiopian forces will leave, but inept Ugandan and Burundian troops that under African Union command don’t have a fighting mandate won’t be able to enforce peace. Insecurity will continue. Somalis, however, operate with long time frames and over time indigenous structures, such as negotiations among clan elders, will help restore some semblance of daily order. Nonetheless, a functioning national state is unlikely to emerge.

In addition to the progressive states noted earlier, Cape Verde, Benin, Mozambique and Madagascar are also doing well. At the opposite extreme; Guinea Bissau, the province of Nigerian and South American drug lords, is struggling. Ivory Coast has not yet emerged from internal conflict and Guinea risks collapse into anarchy. Comoros has recently begun a slow climb out of anarchy. Finally, citizens in all African states suffer from poverty, inequities, poor social services and unresponsive governments. Those after all are the characteristics of the developing world.

Advancing American Interests and Policies

To recapitulate our interests are:

-- access to oil.
-- containment of international blights.
-- reduction of conflict.
-- humanitarian aid to the vulnerable.
-- trade and investment opportunities.
-- African support in international organizations.

Protection and advancement of American national interests is best accomplished by helping to create stable democratic nations with viable growing economies. Such a community of states would not be warring, would respect the rule of law, would create jobs and opportunities at home, would be responsible international partners and would not be breeding grounds for international terrorists. We have existing programs designed to do some of this, but many are sort of scatter shot. For example, our anti-AIDS activities accomplished via the PEPFAR program are very effective. However, PEPFAR is only active in 12 (out of 53) states. Similarly with USAID that unfortunately retrenched about fifteen years ago and eliminated dozens of worthy states from direct bilateral assistance. The Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) has provided limited trade benefits to textile producers and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) has usefully financed a limited number of infrastructure projects. The Department of Defense via newly created Africa Command apparently intends to build on military assistance programs to dramatically expand military aid to Africa on a selective basis. Finally, Peace Corps remains a highly successful people-to-people program as intended, but expansion in eastern Europe and Central Asia has left Africa (again) holding the short straw.


The new Congress and the new president should look carefully at the dichotomies of American efforts in Africa and seek to bring consistency and logic to policy efforts. On a global basis the U.S. needs to fully fund the Department of State so that it might field the number of diplomats needed to advance our interests. (Currently the Department is about one thousand persons short in a planned total staff of 7,500 diplomats because of administration/Congressional decisions not to meet funding requests. That coupled with requirements to staff Iraq and Afghanistan has robbed embassies worldwide of personnel, Africa being no exception).

For Africa, I recommend:

• A broad policy discussion internally within the USG to clarify democracy policies and how we intend to pursue them. Case by case circumstances do differ as do U.S. interests at stake, but we should not disavow or neglect free and fair elections as criteria for bilateral relations.

• Reinvigorate USAID so that it will have the leadership, the mandate and the resources to be America’s chief provider of development assistance. Poverty alleviation and democracy programs are sound investments, but a revamped agency needs to look also at infrastructure – water, dams, irrigation, electrical grids, ports, railroads, roads - and other larger projects, especially in the agricultural sector, that have multiplier effects on economic growth. Part of a revised mandate would be greater geographic coverage. Logically MCA should be subsumed into a new USAID.

• Rein-in AFRICOM. Our military/security interests are minimal. We are not going to war in Africa. We ought not to be in the business of strengthening armies whose chief responsibility is to maintain oppressive governments in power. Civic tranquility should be the responsibility of police forces (there we can help). Development and humanitarian relief are best (and more cheaply) done by civilian experts, so why create a war fighting $300 million, two thousand person headquarters entity whose real function will be management of about $150 million in bilateral training and a few exercises? - a job that heretofore was done by a dozen people. Congress should walk this horse back to the barn. (As an aside, it would be hard to think of a more inappropriate name than Africa Command, a sobriquet which implies both American paternalism and imperialism.) As a second part of this retrenchment, American troops should be withdrawn from Djibouti.

• Although recognizing that global terrorism rears its head in Africa – to wit bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, we must refrain from letting anti-terrorism become the pretext for supporting otherwise unsavory regimes. Striking the necessary balance will require carefully vetted intelligence, sound perspective, good judgment and good communication between Washington policy makers and Ambassadors in the field.

• We have a proven record of gaining friends in Africa and helping them understand us via cultural exchange and civic education programs. Consistent with other neglect, funding for these activities has sunk in the last decade. Let’s re-engage and revitalize these people-to-people contacts.

• Maintain support for Peacekeeping. Operations in Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Ivory Coast and Burundi merit full U.S. support. Besides training, supplying and transporting African contingents for deployment, we could do more. Supplying fifteen helicopters for UNAMID in Darfur, Sudan would be a start.

• Prepare for an even greater food crisis in Africa as its population grows and arable land decreases on account of climate change. This should be double tracked: expanded assistance for local production coupled with plans for greater export of food surpluses from the U.S.


Obviously the topic is larger than can be dealt with satisfactorily in this article, but the change of administrations offers an opportunity to assess, study, modify and change as necessary. We can and should do a better job of helping African nations and peoples better their circumstances, enjoy peace, participate in pluralistic political systems and become more fully integrated into the wider community of the planet.

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