Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Africa is Changing: Is that Good News?

Following is the text of a speech that I gave in Michigan.
Africa Is Changing: Is that Good News?


Prepared for  International Affairs Forum

Traverse City, Michigan, March 21, 2013


Robert E. Gribbin

Where is Africa going? 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 stand troubled states like Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and Mali.  Ditto for the Sudans and the Congo which are mired in never ending conflict. Yet that thumb nail sketch does not do justice to the successes and failures on the continent. This talk 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 government 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 and cell phones are everywhere. The continental economic growth rate exceeded five percent per year for the past decade. 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, the CAR and Mali are African - and in terms of economic and social progress encompassed in the Millennium Development Goals to which they have subscribed. Nations like Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius, Senegal 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 must 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:
1. - access to oil (Africa currently supplies about 20 percent of our imports. This should rise to over 25 % within five years.)
2. – fostering of democratic intuitions (It’s true that democracies are better global citizens across the board) .

3. - containment of international blights – terrorism, drugs, piracy, trafficking in persons, illegal migration, AIDS, malaria.
4. -- reduction of conflict (Africa currently has three active wars – Sudan, Mali and Congo. Plus hot spots in Chad, CAR and Nigeria. Violence elsewhere, Somalia for example, has tapered off.)

5. -- humanitarian aid to the vulnerable (usually victims of conflict, natural disaster or pervasive poverty).
6. -- Economic development, trade and investment opportunities (American know-how and capital are competitive. African markets are growing).
7. -- African support internationally (In UN institutions, Africa holds swing votes, but often casts them in unhelpful ways).

African interests:


To give Africa equal time, let me sum up their interests vis a vis the United States:


-- Responsible global leadership, solution to problems

-- Economic assistance, trade and investment

-- Respect for their sovereignty


The Record


During the first four years of the Obama administration – and despite Africa’s strong hopes for new vibrant attention from a son of Africa sitting in the White House – it was business as usual. Certainly, policies and programs persisted and were strengthened.  Many programs registered incremental successes, but there was no great new initiative.  The challenge now before the U.S. and Africa is to build on progress to date.  Let’s look at some of the challenges.


Climate Change


While we worry about and are ravaged by extreme weather in America, our system – by and large – can handle it. Africa is much more fragile.  Climate change that results in drought generates enormous problems for the hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers.  As a result some starve, others become malnourished, children die, disease flourishes. Pastoralists move herds into alien areas where they are not welcome exacerbating conflict over land and water.  The Sahara creeps southward. Most of the current conflicts in Africa: Darfur, Somalia, South Sudan, Congo and Mali have roots in land issues.   Meanwhile, the lack of opportunities in rural areas reinforces the process of urbanization. Youths flock to the cities, but unfortunately, newly arrived migrants find little hope in Africa’s now teeming cities.  Lagos, Kinshasa, Nairobi and Johanesburg are melting pots for millions, but smaller cities like Ndjamena, Bangui, Bamako and Dakar are also bursting at the seams. Surprisingly, despite the poverty and crime that characterizes them, these cities have struck an equilibrium that permits daily life to proceed fairly normally.  


Indeed the social fabric of Africa has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. African institutions are evolving a bit as a consequence.




Prior to gaining independence in the 1960s African states were subjected to the tyranny of colonialism.  It was an exploitative system designed to extract resources to the benefit of the colonial power. There was minimal focus on the development of indigenous governing institutions.  So after independence it was not surprising to find that new rulers mimicked the harsh reality of colonial rule by instituting one man single party systems.  Despite the rationale that such systems reflected the African cultural value of consensus, the systems were exploitative and benefited only a chosen few.  The fragility of these new governments led to dozens, if not a hundred military coups d’etat continent wide.  By the end of the cold war in the late 1980s, stymied by poor growth and unresponsive governments, Africans had come to realize that there were better methods for exercising political rule.  So a new wave of multi-party constitutions swept the continent.  Thus began the process of democratic growth that characterizes many African nations today.  


The first step was to adopt a constitution that provided for multiple parties, elections and constraints on presidential powers.  Dozens of nations did so in the late 1980s early 1990s.  Ideas of accountability and a loyal opposition were new and difficult to respect.  Accountability because up until then few leaders had had their power limited or had been called to answer for their corruption, nepotism or brutality.  The concept of a loyal opposition, the idea that disagreements could be civil rather than violent, and that you could have opponents rather than enemies was difficult to absorb and remains a stumbling block today.  Even so, free and fair elections were an important first step.


When I was ambassador in the Central African Republic in 1993, the nation held its first free election.  The revised constitution was in place, some 15 individuals contested for the presidency.  For most it was an ego trip, but four of them represented substantial ethnic blocks.  Tribalism is the currency of politics in most of Africa. So the issue was which candidate could cobble together enough cross tribal support to win.  Incumbent president Andre Kolingba, a former general who came to power via a coup d’etat, was among the contestants, but he was from a small riverine tribe.  As the election drew near, the people began to realize that they really had power and that their vote mattered.  Emotions heated up.  Election day however, was calm.  Citizens stood in lines – sometimes for hours in order to cast their vote.  I visited a dozen polling places and remember sitting in a hot school room observing a team of poll officials and poll watchers count votes via the light of a single kerosene lantern late into the night.  As votes were tabulated nationwide it became clear that President Kolingba would lose. His team then sought to disrupt the finally tallying but with no success.  Ange Patasse was elected.  He did not turn out to be a very good president and was overthrown by the current president Francois Bozize in a coup several years later.  But the electoral process left an indelible mark on the citizenry and when again they will be empowered to chose, they’ll be ready.


Unlike in the CAR elections elsewhere have not always gone according to plan, but the aftermaths have been better.  Nigeria’s selection of Yar Adua as president in 2007 was deeply flawed from a procedural point of view, but being the best they could do at the time was accepted by the populace and reluctantly endorsed by the U.S. On a better note after Yar Adua died in office in 2010, Nigeria successfully adhered to constitutional succession and swore in Vice President Goodluck Johnson as chief of state.  He was freely and properly elected to his own term in 2011.


Similarly, Kenya’s 2007 election was marred by tribal violence and widespread irregularities.   Only implementation of a carefully negotiated power sharing agreement averted continued violence. However, the Kenyans learned a lesson. Subsequently they revised their constitution and prepared carefully for the election held two weeks ago.  Despite glitches, and only several incidents of violence, the process was fair and the results will ultimately be accepted by all.


These are only several examples.  Elections and peaceful transitions tend to occur again once you have done it a couple of times.  Tanzania has an exemplary record of three such transitions. Botswana, Ghana, Senegal, Benin stand out in that regard as well and now Malawi, Burundi and Liberia have joined in.


Besides the aspect of allowing competition , key elements underpinning the strengthening of democracy in Africa are freer medias and access to them  – newspapers, radio stations, internet, cell phones;  increasingly literate populations,  growing economies and expanding civil society.  By civil society I mean church groups, service clubs, bar associations, women’s rights groups, human rights associations, journalist associations, student forums, political parties, labor unions – in short any and all such organizations that are not creatures of or dependent upon government.  The more there are and the more independent they feel they are, the stronger the democratic fabric of the nation.  Part of America’s policy approach to fostering democracy in Africa includes support to civil society organizations.


One of the modern responsibilities of governments is to grant, observe and protect the human rights of its citizens.  Virtually every African government has such clauses in its constitution. Additionally all African states are parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   Problems are in the details.  Impoverishment and neglect are the basic causes of rights violations in Africa, but there have been many cases of deliberate violations.   In almost every African state the judiciary is a weak institution.  It is inadequately funded and staffed. Thus the rule of law and rectification of wrongs through the courts is rarely satisfactory.  Concomitantly, prisons are almost always inadequate.  Conditions are uniformly poor.   Even in peaceful countries soldiers, police and bureaucrats are often violators rather than protectors of human dignity. In conflict zones such as eastern Congo and Darfur intimidation, brutality and rape are all too common. 


In 1996 when I arrived as ambassador in Rwanda there was no legal system. What had existed before the genocide had collapsed.  Judges, prosecutors and clerks had fled, court rooms were looted and abandoned. And importantly there was no statute in the legal code governing genocide.  Meanwhile there were 100,000 people jailed for genocide related crimes in prisons built for 15,000.  Obviously there was a crisis, but how to deal with it?  How to balance the deaths of a million people against the rights of those accused of killing them?  First was to cooperate with the new authorities in the drafting of a genocide statute that would pass international muster; second was to rebuild the judicial system; third was to try to improve conditions in the prisons.  We, the United States, did all three.  Experts aided in the drafting of new laws. We provided funding to refurbish courtrooms and to train lawyers and judges; and working with the International Committee of the Red Cross we helped alleviate some of the worst prison conditions. 


In looking at modern Africa, you cannot helped but to be impressed by economic progress.  By no means is Africa out of the woods or off the dole, but still by registering growth rates of  5 percent per year and better over the last decade, it is catching up.  Reality, however, is that the overwhelming number of people are rural subsistence farmers or urban poor.  So where is Africa’s growth coming from?  First, resources - almost a dozen African states are petroleum producers. Nigeria and Angola lead the way, but Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Congo and South Sudan are producers. Newcomers along the West African littoral including Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia are now in the game as is Uganda in the east.  Oil, or diamonds, gold, timber, copper, bauxite and coltan can be a curse as well as a blessing.  Governments of countries endowed with such wealth have not necessarily used it wisely.  Funds have been spent lavishly or siphoned away into personal coffers. Often there is an extremely wealthy governing class, but only a little trickle down to the people.  That is beginning to change, albeit slowly, with the rise of more politically astute populations that demand accountability.


Nations such as Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Namibia, Rwanda, Mauritius and Senegal that are not endowed with ground wealth have developed mixed economies that are diverse and resilient.  They have banked not only on improving agricultural production via modern inputs and free markets, but also have supported industry such as manufacturing, textile production and even off shore banking and call centers. The policy breakthrough that has enabled much of this growth was reformed economic policies that dismantled state controls and freed the private sector. Better education and more economic opportunities result in an emerging middle class.  This in turn is politically stabilizing in that when a society offers multiple roads to success, there is much less pressure on elites to contest for political power and the largess that control of government traditionally provided.


Despite improving prospects African states are hampered by woefully inadequate infrastructure, limited access to finance, restricted markets, unresponsive governments and an uneducated labor force.  Donor states and institutions including the United States, China, the European Union and the World Bank all have various programs to help Africa along, but the need is much greater than the resources available.  So progress is slow.    


From the American side, for example, our assistance program for Africa last year totaled 6.9 billion.  But of that only 1 billion went to development objectives. The remainder was humanitarian aid for health issues, disaster relief, refugees and internally displaced persons; plus military aid, much of it to support peace keeping operations. Given the economic imbroglio currently Washington, it is unrealistic to expect dramatic movement in these figures at any time in the near future.       



A major focus for the United States in Africa, both from our government but also from American philanthropists, has been in the health sector.  Africa has long been the incubator of terrifying diseases like Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers that kill within days, but traditionally other maladies - malaria, measles, cholera, malnutrition, tuberculosis and smallpox have taken toll of millions of human lives. The latest of the scourges is, of course, HIV AIDS.  AIDS started in Africa, probably in the Congo, and it is in Africa where its toll has been the greatest.  When I was in Uganda in 1988-91 I was a member of the Mountain Club of Uganda. We went rock climbing, hiking and climbing in the Ruwenzoris, the fabled mountains of the moon. About twenty of the club members were graduate or medical students at Makerere University. They were Uganda’s brightest and best, but they all subsequently died of AIDS.


Thankfully today, death’s scythe does not cut such a clear swath.  President Bush initiated PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) a program designed to improve health services specifically with the objective of providing retro-viral medicines.  This anti-AIDS effort was joined by the Gates Foundation, the UN and others.  Today about five million people in Africa are benefiting from retro-viral medicines.  Death rates are lower and because of education, infection rates too are lower.  Even so, AIDS sufferers fill half of the hospital beds in Africa. This, of course, complicates already overburdened health systems. 



Security issues loom high on lists of concerns in Africa. Obviously security is prerequisite for domestic harmony, economic growth and political evolution, all of which are in our interest.  Yet the threats to peace are many. Most are homegrown relating to who is going to control the political/economic pie. While the U.S. does not want to dictate outcomes per se, we do seek an end to internal conflict and cross border violence. To this end we cajole, negotiate, and strive to convince all concerned to sort out difficulties in a peaceful fashion.

Conflict, based essentially on a quest for power, has plagued Africa for generations.  The good news today is that conflict has subsided.  Proxy cold wars have ceased, the liberation of southern Africa zeroed out race based wars. The Rwandan genocide, civil wars in Burundi, Liberia, Chad, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire are over.  Even long running conflict in Somalia has abated as a legitimate government spreads its authority.  Yet alongside the recent conflagration in Mali, strife continues in Sudan and the Congo.


I suggest that conflict has receded because of better politics - that is more accountable government and via democracy greater opportunities to redress wrongs within the system.  I also attribute reduction of conflict to improved international mediation, negotiation and peace keeping mechanisms. African leaders are in the forefront of efforts to solve conflict while African troops constitute the bulk of peacekeepers on the continent.   At home more professional militaries tend to discourage coups d’etat - although as last year’s coup in Mali indicates - these things still happen.


Sudan is the locus of two conflicts: one in Darfur and the other the continuing struggle between the north and the south - now two separate nations that teeter on the brink of open war.  The Darfur situation has stalemated, a million folks are displaced either internally or as refugees in Chad where help is provided by the international community. Violence still occurs, but is mitigated by a UN Peace Keeping presence. Sadly, no resolution is in sight.


Regarding the north south conflict, the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement settled many issues leading to the plebiscite that resulted in South Sudan’s independence in 2011, but it did not resolve the question of oil revenues - oil is pumped in the south but pipelines transit the north- or the status of southerners who dwell in border provinces.  African presidents have compelled Presidents Bashir of Sudan and Kir of South Sudan to talk and it appears that oil may flow again and that a demilitarized zone will be established along the border.  I am not confident, however, that either side will honor its commitments, so predict that violence will continue.


Right now the eastern Congo seems to be quieting down somewhat following the latest agreement by neighboring presidents to refrain from meddling across the border in the Congo.  There after decades of conflict - again mostly tribally based - normal life has collapsed.   But the central government in far off Kinshasa has little ability to rule; the UN Peace Keeping Operation has proven to be only marginally effective and national security issues are at stake for Rwanda and Uganda as well as access to Kivu’s mineral wealth.  So my prognosis for Congo is that conflict will continue, albeit hopefully at a lower level.


Mali is the embodiment of the maxim that if something can go wrong, it will.  Mali’s fragile and corrupt democracy succumbed to a military coup d’etat in early 2012.  On account of confusion and weakness in the capital, the Tuareg people of the northern desert seized the occasion to declare their own state dubbed Azawad. They in turn were co-opted by regional terrorists, led by a group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who imposed a harsh Islamic rule.   Undoing this chain of events requires several reverse steps.  First, the terrorists must be defanged and destroyed. The French led mission is accomplishing this and the deployment of African troops there will help stabilize this area.  Secondly, democratic civilian government must be restored in Bamako.  Thirdly, the new central government must arrive at some accommodation with the Tuaregs regarding the status of the north. It is not guaranteed that any of these steps will cure Mali’s ills, but they will get it back on the right track. 


In addition to moral suasion, our latest big stick is AFRICOM, the relatively new U.S. military command for Africa.  Although AFRICOM is logical from the U.S. perspective as it is designed for more efficient military thinking and operations, it is somewhat a puzzle and even an affront to African nations.  They fear it as a hegemonic statement of America’s imperial ambitions on the continent.  To an extent that fear is well founded. The American military is a huge hammer and the nails in Africa are usually quite small.  Despite an initial pledge not to go to war in Africa, activities in Libya, Somalia and now the Sahara belie that promise.  Additionally military resources overshadow development oriented monies available from USAID or the Millennium Challenge Corporation.  The expansion of American military activities on one hand and the reduction of civilian on the other results in the militarization of American diplomacy. This is the last thing that Africa needs. It is up to the State Department and ambassadors in the field to find and strike the proper balance.    


As if poverty, drought, disease, poor government, tribalism, civil conflict and religious tension were not enough, Africa is also a venue for terrorism, both of international and local varieties. International terrorism is opportunistic. In Africa it has glommed onto those with pre-existing grievances.  That is not to say that it is less dangerous for having done so. To the contrary having a local host probably makes it more dangerous.


Africa has shown itself to be vulnerable to international terrorists.  Most incidents, the assassination of diplomatic personnel in Khartoum, bombings of embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, attacks in Abuja, the massacres in Benghazi, the takeover of northern Mali and the attack at the Algerian gas installation occurred because the opportunity arose and no one was prepared or ready to challenge the perpetrators.


The groups that pose the greatest threat now in that regard are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates who are being challenged in the Sahara; Al Shabaat, the Somali organization that is reeling from military pressure in Somalia; and Boko Harum,  a fundamentalist Islamic organization in northern Nigeria.  So far, none of these groups have shown an ability to operate out of their home regions.  The anti-terrorist effort must be to first contain them there even as undertakings are made to defang and destroy them. 


The first line of defense is to strengthen the abilities of African security services to identify and destroy such challenges.  Most are willing to do so.  In East Africa, fifteen years after the embassy bombing, Kenyan anti-terrorist abilities are more robust. In Somalia the joint African Union force has pushed Al Shabaat back. In Nigeria, the government is fully aware of Boko Harum that it correctly views as threatening Nigeria first.  In Mali, France in conjunction with several West African states as well as the Malian military has retaken the north.


America’s role in these undertaking has been suitably restrained.  We help train and support the AU force in Somali and have not shied away from some specific anti-terrorist actions.  We will help finance, train and support the intervention force in Mali as well.  In Nigeria we will remain in contact and share information with Nigerian security services, but a more expanded role is unlikely.  However, you can bet that there is already underway a rather intense dialogue between the Departments of State and Defense as to what else the U.S. might or ought to do.  State, I would hope is arguing for restraint while the military with more gadgets, men and money than current wars, is looking to expand its footprint. 





America’s interest in a peaceful, prosperous, democratic Africa is undiminished.  Such a state of affairs would suit us best. We would have reliable partners capable of administering their own affairs in a responsible fashion.  This would enable us all to work the problems of poverty and development in the most productive fashion.  The bright note is that overall Africa seems aimed in this direction.  Our record in pursuit of these objectives is spotty, especially as our rhetoric usually outpaces our actions.  Since more money, except perhaps for military expansion, is unlikely, the Obama administration in its second term is going to have to work these same issues in a more effective fashion.  That’s called diplomacy.  


Thank you.