Friday, May 25, 2012

What is Africa Really Mad about?

By Shingi Mavima
 Today, we celebrate the 49th Africa Day. The holiday commemorates the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on May 25 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after Emperor Halie Selassie 1 had brought together the Casablanca Bloc (Ghana, AlgeriaGuinea,MoroccoEgyptMali and Libya) led by Kwame Nkrumah and the Monrovian Bloc of Ethiopia, Nigeria, Liberia and most of the former French colonies. The two groups had somewhat different purposes, but were united as  a means to promote
cooperation and the reestablishment of the continent’s identity and dignity in the aftermath of colonialism, the day serves as annual point of pride and reflection for Africa and her nations. With a year to go before the half-century mark, it would be denial of the worst form to suggest that the goals of the organization (now the African Union) have been overwhelmingly reached. The continent remains light years behind the other regions in regards to socio-economic development, the establishment of smooth-functioning political institutions, and in the retention of the raw capital (human and natural) that has the potential to make Africa the wealthiest continent on the planet. 

Needless to say, on the eve of the organization’s 50th birthday, Africa cuts a frustrated figure. So what is Africa really mad about?

1)      The Lost Years
Beginning with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the end of the 19th century until the end of the Apartheid era in South Africa in 1994, the continent was essentially robbed of arguably the most important century in the development of the modern world. Colonialism did not only rob the continent of control and resources, it disintegrated the very essence of its society and identity. Thus, the continent is struggling to bring itself to terms with, for example, being able to reconcile themselves to political institutions left for them by their former European masters.

All things considered, Africa as we know it is a relatively fledgling continent suffering through some of the many pains of early nationhood. The process of rebuilding, necessary as it may be, is a difficult and frustrating one.

2)      Neocolonialism

When the tyranny of colonialism was officially lifted from the continent, there was a general sense of anticipation around the world. Would ‘freedom’ bring the promise of equality and prosperity that had been preached? Would the colonialists be content with just leaving the landscape that had fueled the rise of Western prominence?

The term neocolonialism, made famous by legendary African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah, refers to the continued control of affairs in Africa by external entities. These could be the former colonial masters, other actors such as the USA and more recently, China and other rising Asian economies. International organizations such as the IMF have also been responsible for perpetuating this culture through extreme measures that are usually imposed in African countries as conditionality for help. Sometimes, it seems like the continent was never liberated; it just switched masters

Neocolonialism might be yet harder to combat than traditional colonialism, as it often disguises itself in benevolence. This segues perfect into my next point...

3)      Claims of an Even Playing Field

Perhaps in the interest of guilt and appearing fair, rhetoric in global circles now declare Africa to be a partner and not the object of sympathy that it has been for the past few decades. I mean, throw the land a World Cup here, a Nobel Peace Prize there and we are dining at the highest table, right? Yet, upon second glance where it really matters, you find that the field is as uneven as Kilimanjaro’s terrain.

Nowhere is the bias more apparent than in the International Criminal Court. As it stands, all 15 of the cases currently sitting before the Court are from African countries. To this end, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has remarked that the ICC was ‘put in place for Africans’, while DRC expert Adam Hochschild said ““The obvious problem is that the court will investigate small and medium fish because the big fish come from big countries. The US will not be in court for its endorsement of torture in the Iraq War, or Russia for the war in Chechnya, or China for its actions in Tibet.”

More recently, the disparity culminated in this year’s World Bank President Appointment. The decision pitted the US’s nominee Jim Young Kim, the Korean-American physician and president of Dartmouth College against, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister of Nigeria and a managing director of the World Bank. Can you guess who was appointed? You guessed it, the physician college president.

Now, I don’t mean to trivialize the phenomenal resume of the new president, who has helped to develop innovative treatment methods in Haiti and advised the head of the World Health Organization during a period when the organization sought to provide HIV/AIDS treatment to millions in African countries. He is, indeed, a hero in human development. However, the idea that Okonjo-Iweala’s credentials read like they were tailor-made for the position and yet we somehow knew that she never stood a chance; that is the uneven playing field that continues to rouse African ire.

4)      Being Patronized

Good intentions be damned! There is nothing more patronizing than the way in which the developed world deals with Africa. I took a graduate-level class on Global Cultures at one of the finest educational institutions in the USA. The class did a good job of analyzing even the specifics of Italian rural communities, but had one glaring shortcoming: not a single thing on Africa. Wait, what? A global cultures class that does not include the +-billion people, 54 countries of the cradle of humanity?

I know what you are thinking: that was just one instance, and can probably be attributed to a syllabus flaw by one instructor. Yet it is all around. Have you ever heard anyone refer to Africa as a country? Have you noticed how African ethnic groups are ‘tribes’ and distinct languages are regarded as ‘dialects’? So, where are the European Tribes, and why are similar European languages from the same family (for ex. Portugal and Spanish) regarded as two distinct languages rather than dialects? Simple, there is an almost apathetic approach to the diversity and cultural wealth that is in Africa.

It is interesting how, not too long before the Arab Spring, Mubarak and Gaddafi were much favored by the American government only for this opinion to change the instance the protests started. Africa is supposed to act like they don’t see the hypocrisy?

Remember Kony2012? When, for a couple of days, people around the world liked a YouTube video and felt they had solved Africa’s ‘most pressing problem’? As it turned out, the Ugandan government and several other African communities found the video and the campaign to be very minimalistic, misguided and patronizing. Again, my intention is not to demean the philanthropic efforts of organizations such as the Invisible Children; but to reveal how the rest of the world continues to view Africa as this basket-case orphan whose continued existence is at the mercy of 'White Man's Burden".

5)      At itself

I had the distinguished pleasure of attending one of the best high schools in Africa where I received a secondary education as good as the very best in the world. As well-rounded and excellent as the experience was, I can’t help but cringe that it left me well-informed on the Aztecs, Joseph Stalin, and the Black Death but not much about the dynamics of the Rwandan genocide or the empires of pre-colonial Africa. Or how the school didn’t offer Shona classes past the first two years, and Ndebele classes at all (the two biggest local languages in Zimbabwe respectively), and yet I was well-versed in French and Latin by the time I graduated from high school. I’ll let that sink in: our best schools overlook fundamentals of our identity.

The leaders we once revered have turned into much-feared monsters. It took a video by some small American organization and tweets by people who would have forgotten in a few days for the African Union to mobilize the 5000 troops to catch Joseph Kony. Because of weakened infrastructure and a lack of opportunities, Africa’s best and brightest find themselves plying their trade in Western countries. Individuals without a grasp on their respective colonial language are often regarded as being second tier citizens in African communities, yet people in society can get away without a grasp of their native language and few would bat an eyelid at that.

Because someone acted like they cared about Africa, the continent believed them, and was left in disappointment when the obvious came out to be true: nobody can care of Africa as much as Africa can.

      Africa has made enormous strides in the past few decades. South Africa, Nigeria and a few other nations are making enormous economic strides. The Arab Spring showed the power of the masses that had not been seen since the colonial era.  Movies like Tsotsi and Safe House are correcting the picture of Africa that had been distorted by The Gods Must Be Crazy and Coming to America (which, don't get me wrong, were both hilarious). The soccer World Cup in 2010 was a success, and several African intellectuals now sit on the most prominent think-tanks holding the reins of the world.

If, by some miracle, we can address Africa’s frustrations listed above, the continent is well on its way to global might. Who knows, this writer’s article on the 50th Africa Day just might be ‘What Africa is so Happy About”

Til then, Happy 49th Africa Day!

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