Skip to comments.Sense of despair haunts the African Renaissance
Posted on 06/15/2003 1:10:54 PM PDT by sarcasm
In the Liberian town of Redemption last week the bodies of the dead littered the main street. Aid workers with Médecins Sans Frontières described a smell of death hanging over the town. 'People have come from camps where the last food distribution was months ago,' said Alain Kassa. 'They have again been fleeing for six days with nothing to eat. Here in the city they won't even find the bits and pieces of food that they can gather in the bush.'
Kassa was describing Liberia, but his words could just have easily been applied to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ivory Coast or southern Sudan -- five trouble-plagued places, but all of them in Africa. A few bloody weeks have seen a failed coup in Mauritania, fighting for Liberia's wrecked capital, Monrovia, appalling inter-ethnic violence around the eastern DRC town of Bunia, and violent suppression of political protests in Zimbabwe.
It was not supposed to be like this. In the decade after the end of the Cold War, the proxy wars of the United States and Soviet Union were coming to an end, apartheid had breathed its last gasp and a new generation of African leaders had been anointed who promised to transform their continent. That dream they dubbed the African Renaissance.
Last week, however, amid the tales of horror, the impotence of UN peacekeepers sent to keep a meaningless peace, amid the hunger, mutilation and inevitable tragic columns of refugees, the question was being repeatedly asked: what has happened to that promised African Renaissance?
First mooted as a concept by President Nelson Mandela at the Organisation of African Unity's summit in Tunisia in 1994, the African Renaissance has, however, been most associated with Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki.
Its crucial test was that set out by Jacob Zuma, South Africa's Deputy Prime Minister, at the launch of its South African chapter when he declared in 1999 that 'we will know that the African Renaissance has been achieved once war and destruction are a mere chapter of Africa's history rather than a daily reality'.
Would the African Renaissance succeed or would it go the way of the other ideas of African transformation like Negritude, Pan-Africanism, African Unity and African Socialism that were supposed to change the African horizon but failed?
At first sight it appears already to have failed. For a summation of Africa even by those -- like Kwame Owusu-Ampomah of Durban-Westville University -- who believe in the idea of an African Renaissance makes for grim reading. In a paper two years ago Owusu-Ampomah listed a litany of familiar ills.
'At the turn of the twenty-first century,' he wrote, 'Africa continues to waddle in poverty, disease, and ignorance, having long lost the momentum of the socio-economic gains of the 1960s and the early 1970s. Worse still, the continent is being ravaged by internal and international conflicts, notwithstanding the scourge of Aids, with devastating effects on life and property.'
It is a picture of gloom that is not alleviated by the bald tabulation of a continent's woes. More than 30 wars in Africa since 1970 account for 'more than half of all war-related deaths worldwide' and have been responsible for between up to 9,5-million refugees, UN figures show.
The average African lives on less than two dollars a day; three-quarters of the world's poorest countries are African. Growth rates, after the economic gains of the Sixties and Seventies, were negative in the Nineties.
The continent is also saddled with debt. Its apparently intractable problems account for 75 per cent of the UN Security Council's deliberations. Then finally there is the scourge of HIV, running at infection rates of well over 30% in countries like Zimbabwe, whose damage is economic and social as Aids has carved a swath through Africa's skilled and educated classes.
The twin trajectories of the Africa of the twenty-first century are signified by the 10-year anniversaries next year of two of the continent's most significant recent events -- the first free and fully inclusive elections in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda.
What they represent is a continent's imperfect progress towards democratisation of its societies, set against the warning of the most terrible kind of war. They represent, too, both the palpable successes of the African Renaissance and its bloody failings.
'Every decade some new idea emerges that is supposed to change Africa for the better,' says Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute at Chatham House. 'At the beginning of the Nineties everyone was talking about "good governance". Then we had Baroness Chalker's model for multi-party democracy; now we have African Renaissance.
'The reality is there are some good things going on, but there are also deepening problems. One of the really good developments has been in terms of freedom of expression and the biggest single thing that has helped has been the mobile phone, which in recent elections in Kenya, Ghana and Senegal has had a significant impact in reducing electoral fraud as people have been able to mobilise very quickly against it when they see something funny going on. It has encouraged whistle-blowing.
'There have also been some democratic watershed elections as in Kenya, where we see an entrenched leader like Daniel arap Moi being forced to stand down.'
There have been other success stories in a similar vein. In Zambia, when President Chiluba attempted to change the constitution to stand again he was slapped down. Ghana is in the process of peaceful transition from the Rawlings era. Angola, too, is at the beginning of a decade of transition following the end of its long war.
It is in terms of its economic challenges that the African Renaissance is having its greatest impact, not least in its argument that Africa has been shamefully treated by trade restrictions and tariffs that, as President Museveni of Uganda argued in Washington last week, meant that Africa was subsidising Western trade.
'The point about African Renaissance is that it is a great grab bag of ideas,' says Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential . 'But its economic arguments are the ones that are now quickly becoming the orthodoxy.
'There are two points that come out of this: firstly that Western agricultural subsidies are an international scandal, but that even with their removal African farmers need to be helped to take advantage of this.
'It is exactly what Kwame Nkrumah (Prime Minister of Ghana) was arguing 50 years ago - that Africa needs to develop systems of manufacturing and marketing if it is not to stay at the bottom of the pile. But finally Africa seems to be winning the argument on this.'
The West -- and America's response in particular to this argument -- has been at best an imperfect response, as Smith argues, pointing out that the much vaunted agreement by America to open its markets to finished African textiles to the tune of $2-billion is highly conditional and represents a drop in the ocean for the US textile industry.
Smith argues, too, that it is the success of this kind of economic reform that is crucial for stabilising Africa economically, politically, and in terms of bringing an end to its wars. For its wars, as Smith argues, recently have been as much about economic activity in failed states as about tribal competitions.
'What people have to remember is that the armed militias of the kind we are seeing in Congo at the moment are a business -- that war is business and that is not just enough to pay fighters $30 to hand over their guns if the fighter then does not have something economically useful to do.'
It is the long wars like that in Congo which cast the deepest and the darkest shadows. These are wars that envelope all sectors of society, where all are potential victims; all potentially incorporated into an effort inimical to Africa's fragile civic societies. They are places where the violence has gone on so long it has been part of daily life.
And it is a failure of leadership that goes beyond the African Renaissance to implicate the West and the United Nations which have allowed problems like Congo and Liberia to fester and whose solutions have showed a lack of imagination. 'We are seeing a failure in Liberia exactly the same as in Iraq,' Vines says. 'There is an agenda to remove President Charles Taylor which was behind his indictment by the UN. There is a fixation with his removal but no road map as to how Liberia should proceed. It puts the country's future agenda in the hands of armed groups.'
Recent military interventions, more successfully by the largely British forces in Sierra Leone and more equivocally by the French in Ivory Coast, have shown how successful quick intervention can be in bringing conflict to an end or stabilising a dangerous situation.
'The Congo is the greatest shame to the UN system,' Smith argues. 'If the Permanent Five do not act with serious money and serious resolution, with sufficient troops and logistics, it will simply go down the drain.'
What happens in the next few months in the DRC and Liberia may be the test of the African Renaissance and the test, too, of whether the world can usefully intervene in Africa for good.
Easy! The evil white men in the UN have failed to rescue the poor black folks from themselves!
White people: we're a problem when we do something, we're a problem when we do nothing.