Africa: The Potential and Road Blocks

Based on responses and reflections on the publications of:

S.W. Kisembo, Handbook on Decentralisation in Uganda, Wayne Edge Global Studies Africa, 11th Edition, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance, Patrick Bond, Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation

Written on March 2, 2007

The president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete recently stated that the only adversity of Africa was that it receives bad press, stating how the crisis in the “part of one African nation is portrayed as a crisis in all the 53 African countries” and as a result, “every country is condemned”. He further states that Africa is moving in a positive direction, where democracy is flourishing and is no longer such a hopeless case as everyone presumes, going as far as to say that it is the “emerging market of the future in this globe”. Such bold statements would not have been stated less than ten years ago, and even though many aspects have improved for parts of the continent, in order for us to take Kikwete’s insistence seriously today, we would have to be only observing a narrow set of economic statistics. The World Bank has even stated in 2005 that the continent is being “continually drained of wealth through depletion of minerals, forests and other eco-social factors”, and as long as such a trend continues at some level, we are not ready to firmly believe in the optimistic words of the president.

There are several problematic parts with Kikwete’s statements regarding Africa’s progress, foreign investment, as well as the media influence. Kikwete looks sternly at the developed Western world that has not been involved in investing in Africa, instead applauding Asian businesses, such as China, for taking risks in investing in Africa when others have been skeptical. Although it is true that China is investing in Africa, the reason and the method of their investment is questionable and does not follow a parallel pattern to Kikwete’s assumptions, which is that Chinese investment is improving the conditions of African people. Finally, the president’s criticism of the media is an understandable one, as biases and stereotypes are clearly present. However, bashing the media so strongly takes attention away from the deep rooted reasoning behind AIDS, poverty, unemployment, famine, ecological deprivation, corruption, and other shared problems of Africa. The media is bringing attention to such pressing concerns, whether we agree with its method. Overall, the progress of Africa is not as rapid and forthcoming as the president may want to convince us; rather, we are looking at a glimpse of all the potential that African has. But these potentials are not being utilized because of the dynamic problems that have existed for decades.

The reasons behind Africa’s turmoil are extensive, but there is a strong credit that can be given to colonialism by European powers. Colonialism led to an array of critical, lasting problems for the continent, such as its exploitation of the continent through ferocious taxing, stripping of natural resources, separating families by forced urban migration, violence, and new racial ideologies, to name a few. After decolonization, liberated countries faced extreme debt whether due to lending money for development projects or paying for WWII (as was done by former British colonies), and much of this debt is still being paid off today. Today, if one were to observe a plethora of African nations, it can be observed that ongoing corruption and civil unrest are common, as is the case with Zimbabwe, Sudan, Togo, and Sierra Leone. Many coastal nations are facing threats of desertification, deforestation, and over-fishing. Health care, especially the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to be a battle, as well as other diseases such as Malaria which affects more than 90% of the population of Guinea-Bissau. The effects of colonization are still visible today, and as a result, one can state that although Africa is improving, it is not ready to compete with the world, especially when the concept of capital modernization and democracy is still ambiguous.

There are of course nations that are promising and follow the lead of Kikwete’s statements. Mali is mostly a rural nation where the annual growth and GDP growth rate are positive [though less than 3% for each], and the unemployment rate is dramatically lower than the rest of the continent [14.6% in urban areas], as well as the HIV/AIDS rate in adults [only 1.7%]. Botswana is another nation that comes into the front light today when we speak of progressive countries. It has a balanced rural and urban population, whose chief wealth comes from diamonds, copper, and other minerals, having one of the highest GDP percentage in the continent, at 7.2% and growing. Botswana has the longest continuous multiparty democracy in Africa, with a government relatively free of corruption and one that follows a fiscally conservative economic policy. Being noted for being one of the more stable nations of the continent, Botswana’s social services and economic sectors (such as mining) continues to expand, with diamond being 80% of its export. Even though the GDP growth and political situation seem to be enduring, the welfare of individuals under the system is quite unbelievable in Botswana. With life expectancy at birth being only 37 years old for male and 40 years old for female, it is predicted by the UN-AIDS that this rate could drop as low as 27 years by 2010. The main cause of such a dramatic rate is because of HIV/AIDS, which affects a stunning 35.8% of the adult population, giving Botswana the sad distinction of having the highest recorded rate of the infection in the world. If the life expectancy continues to decline at this speed, the economy of Botswana will be severely challenged as labor force will decrease and there will be an increased reliance on immigration which in itself is a problem since diseases become a problem due to population movements. HIV/AIDS could become the factor that could ultimately determine whether Botswana can live up to president Kikwete’s promise of an emerging Africa.

It is not to suggest that there are no organized venues for progress to take place for the continent as a whole. The African Union, established in 2001, is one such unifying factor that shows that nations are willing to take the need of progress seriously. Although dealing with 53 nations of various languages, cultures, and political ideologies has been difficult, it is still important to note the symbolic meaning of such an organization. New Partnership for African Development, or NEPAD is another example of a multi-coalition association that is part of the AU that was founded to “eliminate poverty, concentrating on growth and development, halting marginalization of Africa in the global arena, and accelerating the empowerment of women”, as well as to change the “overwhelmingly negative perception of Africa as a continent buckling under the weight of disease, disaster, death and despair, as well as corruption”. An example of one of several nations that has shown NEPAD in a good light is the successful civilian transfer of power that took place in Nigeria in 2003, its first. Nigeria has been known notoriously for its violent civil unrest, as well as corruption [ranking in the top five for years by Transparency International], but the election of 2003 that brought president Olusegun Obasanjo to power has provided for some hope, as he declared a war against corruption and is also a driving force behind NEPAD, with a strong motivation to bring peace not only to his nation but to West Africa. And according to Hunter-Gault, the election has also given the status of Nigeria as “one of the largest producers of oil in the world”, becoming significant especially for powers such as United States that has been seeking alternative options for oil since 9/11. However, like Botswana, the promising signs that come out of such countries are always shadowed by other crisis that are large enough to be a dilemma for confidently claiming progress.

Other than oil, Nigeria is mainly agriculture based, and although it has a high GDP percentage at about 7%, 45% of its population is under the poverty line, which is less than U.S. $1 a day, according to the World Bank. The inequality between the rich and poor remain at extreme levels, and this is quite upsetting when one sees the potential that exists. Since independence in 1960 from the United Kingdom, Nigeria is basically a nation that has faced political, economic, and a very emotional ride, with the capability of economic growth, human development and social progression being present but other factors such as corruption getting in the way.

It can be observed from various African nations that that though rich in minerals, most of the continent remains dependent on agricultural, which is an issue since the global market for agriculture continues to be a battle. Also, many African countries are either facing or are coming out of political turmoil, affecting the mostly negative human development and human rights record that exists in most African nations, such as Kenya, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, and Nigeria as discussed. The life expectancy rate continues to be extreme, at an average range of 40s to 50s, and this goes hand in hand with the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is heavily concentrated in the continent. Such rates of life expectancy becomes important when discussing the progress of the continent when you are expected to live for such a short time, your outlook on what is important in life and how you choose to lead it will be very narrow as priorities may differ and more narrow, and thus your approach to various issues such as health care will not be the same as those in developed countries.

Along with the progression of Africa into being a hopeful instead of a hopeless case, many leaders have applauded Asian nations, such as China for investing in Africa. And there are statistics that illustrate how investment in various sectors in Africa is not necessarily a risk, such as the fact that in South Africa, the lower middle class have a collective buying power that is over U.S. $26 billion. This indirect attack by Kikwete to other developed nations is questionable; it is true that foreign investment by the West such as the United States has been very limited [though foreign aid has certainly been in existence], but the reasoning behind this is also logical.

Kikwete’s praise of China is interesting since evidence has shown that the affect of Chinese involvement has not been as helpful as hoped. In nations such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Angola, Chinese investment since the 2000s has shown to encourage corrupted regimes, and since then, many native Africans have lost their jobs directly and indirectly by the Chinese threat; in Nigeria alone, where unemployment is already almost half the population, 350,000 jobs were lost directly, and 1.5 million indirectly, and the garment industry of Lesotho completely collapsed when China joined the WTO in 2005. Since 1987, Africa’s agricultural export, which is already limited, has gone down from U.S. $87 billion to US $13 billion in 2000, and one of the primary causes for this is China’s import demand. In its rush to secure relations and resources such as oil for its fast developing economy, experts say that China’s need to expand is “reinvigorating an older, crude style of development, re-establishing an era of ‘white elephants’ and ‘prestige projects’ with little benefit to the local people” (Bond, 74).

Nations are looking at more than the media when thinking of investing millions or even billions, and so statistics must be taken into consideration when we ask why the West is not investing as much as Africa would like. Debt, stock market performances, political stability, resources, and taxes are some of many factors that are taken into consideration in foreign investment. The G8 finance ministers have reported that Third World debt has risen from is defined as “third world”, it is certainly a risk factor that must be taken seriously. The stock market is another dynamic that makes many nations capable of investing rethink their decisions, as the ones particularly in Africa have been very unpredictable. For example, in 1997, outflow of hot money (the speculative positions by private sector investors) crashed Zimbabwe’s currency by an astounding 74% in just four hours of trading. The performances of the eight major stock markets of Africa have been tremendously erratic, sometimes returning “impressive speculative style profits style profits to foreign investors and sometimes generating large losses”. Like the debt issue, the indiscretion of the stock market is an anxiety that is taken into account before any decision is made regarding investment.

Tax fraud is another problem that makes investing in Africa less attractive, especially when corporate failure to pay taxes and the state’s failure to collect leads to controversy. Because foreign investment is much needed and wanted, most African nations are very generous when it comes to tax breaks to new investors. However, it easily leads to corruption; one common form by the state is the awarding of import permits to individuals with distinction, undermining what is supposed to be a legitimate protection, and the negative result of this can be seen with the ruined sugar industry in Kenya and the feed milling and poultry industry in Nigeria that lasted for long stretches of time. Tax fraud and transfer pricing has made much of Africa victims of privatization-related foreign investment. It is certainly a problem when you actually necessitate foreign investment but you do not receive it because of the number of various problems that makes it a risk, and once you do receive investment, the government acts on corruptive actions so that a win-win situation is never guaranteed.

Looking at new organizations with the goal of development such as AU and what they have done to tackle the investment issue has shown that investment is a complete obstacle. The African Peer Review Mechanism is a process that is voluntary that would allow members to be submitted to a review by Western nations of their political governance in order to be considered for investment and aid. The African Peer Review Mechanism is one that has won popular support by Western nations, clearly indicating that they are willing to keep the promise of the program but only to those nations that received the best reviews. However, as of January, 2006, only 26 of the 53 nations that are part of the AU have agreed to participate, and of the 26, Ghana and Rwanda are the participants that have actually gone through the full process. So, the resources are there, but African nations also have to be accountable. Sadly, it is not that easy to grab and plant the seed, as corruption, political unrest, and age old economic concerns and human development problems cannot be changed overnight.

For all of the problems in Africa that has made the continent a “hopeless case”, Kikwete states that it is the media alone that has caused the continent to be an unfortunate case. It is absolutely true that more often than not, the press does intend to report the negative more than the positive, mainly because they receive the highest ratings. Charlene Hunter-Gault labels the media in regards to Africa as “parachute journalism” where journalists basically look at the situation very briefly and then fly back to report without looking at the reasons for why the situation is the way it is. Judgments are often made in void, and this continues the poor portrayal of Africa, and also causes Africans themselves to be angry towards the media, as well as themselves since it is just another reinforcement of what is, could, and should be happening. Articles such as The Economist’s story on “The Hopeless Continent” in 2000 fuels anger, and bolsters Afro-pessimism, a term given to the belief that there is no way out of the position of Africa and using it to justify the lack of investment and involvement by the rest of the world. However, the media alone cannot be blamed for the decades-long tribulations of Africa; media in this case illustrates the symptoms of the troubles, but reporting on poverty, corruption, or HIV/AIDS is not the cause of the short life expectancy, genocides, desertification, etc. in the continent.

If media were to be the reason for all of the problems of Africa as Kikwete suggests, does it mean that the end of reporting negative stories and highlighting only the positive aspects will cure everything? The overwhelmingly depressing portrayal of Africa does not just come out of no truth- statistics, surveys, and research by institutions such as the World Bank and the UN clearly shows that Africa continues to be in trouble. It is arguable that positive reporting of Africa can help the situation- morale boost of Africans is definitely something that can go a long way, since confidence in oneself is more often than not necessary when you are speaking of taking on vast projects for drastic changes. But when we look at the reality of the situation, pessimistic reporting of Africa or any Third World country for that matter will not just terminate, but continue because in the end, media is business and demand of consumers are the shock-stimulating reports.

Media coverage should not terminate, but continue, even if it may irritate leaders such as who are trying to show the world that their nation (and themselves) should be taken seriously. It is better to have coverage than no coverage since it is only by this form that Africa can remain “alive” in the West. Media coverage has shown to be extremely important in actually helping many dire situations around the world. Coverage of the genocide in Sudan has sparked demonstrations throughout major cities in Europe and the United States and has led to the creation of campaigns and associations in various institutions, such as Wellesley College. It is often regretted that if there was more coverage of the genocide in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, the situation would have been taken care of much earlier by public pressure, even though one can argue that that is not as easy as it may seem because many other factors are involved for organizations such as the United Nations to get involved in terminating civil conflicts (such as funding, safety, and interests of gain by powerful nations). Another example can be seen with South Africa, where then-president Mbeki was embarrassed by the media coverage of the dire HIV/AIDS crisis couple of years ago, especially when it was reported that the president did not see the connection between HIV and AIDS, and the health minister Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang claimed that roots and garlic are better remedies for treating AIDS than antiviral that is available. Media has made the issue particularly in South Africa available, and through international pressure that followed, as well as statistical reports and further research has led to a new initiative drawn by the administration whose goal is to halve the number of HIV infections and made antiviral available to 80% of women and children by 2011. Journalism becomes extremely important in such cases, and even if it is negative, it is definitely much better than nothing at all, especially for the Third World.

Africa is a continent that consists of nations that are burdened by series of political, economic, social, and ecological issues, many of which are unfair because they emerged from exploitations from colonialism. Although Kikwete is optimistic in his claims about Africa, it is far from not being a “hopeless case”. Nations are not lost; rather, most of the nations are full of potential for progress. The initiation of uncovering the potential and utilizing the resources for improvement is where it gets tricky, since external factors such as civil unrest and political corruption greatly affects the degree of advancement that can take place in a given time. Foreign investment is much needed, and there are developed nations that have the wealth to do just that. However, investors are not just looking at CNN and BBC to make decisions about the placement of a huge portion of money; rather, a multiplicity of factors such as tax, debt, GDP percentage, and the stock market are observed for such decisions. Therefore, the media cannot be blamed solely for the lack of investment in Africa. Rather, the media should continue and increase their reporting of Africa, thereby keeping attention and perhaps inserting stress onto governments to initiate changes for the betterment of the continent. And perhaps, with such increased attention and pressure brought by the media, real progress could take place for the millions of victims of Africa.