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Africa, a Continent of Contrasts: Reflections on my recent visit of seven African states

By Heikal I. Kenneded

November 2, 2015

At first spectacle, Africa presents an enthralling landscape to most visitors, with its world-class resorts and golf courts, not to mention picturesque beaches that mesmerize your eyes and all around amazing scenery. However, these images belie an arrested development that shows an incredible disparity among various sectors of society. The significant challenges that currently avert the development of most sub-Saharan African states, include but are not limited to non-existing infrastructure, weak healthcare system, poor education and most importantly lack of job opportunities that pushes most of the continent’s young people to take to the high seas and risk their lives in order to seek opportunities in Europe and far beyond. Indeed, the continent is in the throes of yet another socio-economic and political awakening similar to the one experienced during its struggle to break free from the colonial overlords. During my all too brief and privileged visits to seven African states ranging from Senegal, Gambia, Cape Verde, Nigeria, Uganda and the Congos, I couldn’t help but become conscious of a sense of contrast all over the continent.

Notwithstanding, for the last decade alone most African states had some of the best annual growth development product (GDP) in the world, which averaged between 3.16 and 7 percent that ushered them what the Economist magazine dubbed as, “The twilight of the resource curse.” No wonder most of the continent’s poor still live in deplorable conditions, with most communities lacking basic necessities, such as access to clean water and electricity. What ails Africa are three main factors that cripple its economic growth at levels significantly below most developing countries, which could be summarized: failed leadership that’s short of vision, corruption that perpetuates never-ending poverty and repression of dissent and the media The African continent now boasts several millionaires and few billionaires while tens of millions of others survive no more than few dollars a day. The postcolonial Africa that I encountered has a long way to go of catching up with the rest of the developing world, despite the incredible prevalence of natural resources (a third of the planet’s mineral reserves, a tenth of the oil and it produces two-thirds of the diamonds) and great manpower of its people.

Failure of leadership

Ironically, it seems the more things change in the African continent, the more they remain the same. First, there were the postcolonial elderly statesmen who clung to power for their dear life, but today the new leadership is rife with masters of platitudes, self- aggrandizement, living in denial, and driven by insatiable hunger of cronyisms. There’s no argument that today most of Africa's root problems lie with the leadership who time and again failed to end poverty and develop their nations to compete with the rest of the world. Since good education and intelligence are indispensable ingredients for good leadership that might be where the continent’s poor leadership stems from. No wonder a great number of African leaders had poor educational backgrounds, not higher than graduating from secondary school, which may translate their lack of much needed vision to improve their nations’ poor performance in the economic index and development. Thus, the ripple effects of the continent’s poor leadership is manifested on every segment of these societies’ structure, including reduction of productivity, obstruction of development, worsening poverty and marginalization of the poor, which ultimately create social unrest that ultimately lead to a collapse of the nation-state.

The corruption curse

Another major problem with most African states is the unbearable kleptomaniac corruption for personal gain that afflicts every sect of the society and preserves the dysfunctional nature of the state. In fact, corruption doesn’t mean only of stealing the state’s coffers, but it’s also putting in charge of inept people in key positions of government. It is thus shocking to read the unsettling allegations of corruption in every African state’s political leadership, not to mention the profound economic disparities in the various segments of their societies. Driven by voracious greed and poverty most government officials deprive the coffers of their public resources. This in turn forces the local populace to turn to petty crime and violence, on a last resort basis. In fact, the corruption epidemic in most African countries is so debilitating that it has become an affront to their mere survival. For instance, in the most recent deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, with a lack of any viable healthcare system and short on effective leadership, many of these nations could have easily been wiped off the face of the Earth on such a short notice, if the West didn’t come to their rescue.

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Take for example two of the continents heavyweights, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), despite both countries being blessed with immense economic resources and manpower, still a great majority of their populace suffer gut-wrenching poverty and social injustices that perpetuate horrendous violence and other barbaric criminal acts that defy logic. Over 50 percent of the DRC’s population live below the poverty line, surviving on less than a dollar a day. Kinshasa’s streets are endemic with street children with an estimated 25,000 of them who survive by begging. Infectious diseases and malnutrition are also widespread because most hospitals and health centers across the DRC are almost nonexistent due to the healthcare system that collapsed during the years of conflict. On the other hand, Nigeria as one of the top oil producing countries in the world with an estimated oil revenues in excess of US$74 billion per year. Nigeria is also known as the power generator capital of the world, where half of the country’s homes are enveloped in tropical darkness while an estimated 60 million residents use generators. This is merely due to corruption of successive unscrupulous leaders who became notorious of siphoning the country’s coffers taking corruption to an art form that it permeates every level of the conducting in the country. Drawing from the Nigerian experience, no wonder throughout the African continent oil is viewed as a curse rather than a blessing.

Somalia is also a prime case of how a war-ravaged country is kept in the status quo of turmoil by its own leaders who pillage the country’s coffers as though it belonged to the enemy. Reading recently Abdirazak Fartag’s investigative report, “Their Own Worst Enemy” is a resilient testimony of how successive Somali leaders “plundered Somalia’s public resources” for more than two decades since the civil war while the International community turned a blind eye. The author of this timely report explains in detail how lack of an effective and transparent financial management system has contributed to the country’s developmental demise and therefore corruption and money laundering has been consistent throughout the tenures of the various Somali administrations, including the current one.

Suppression of dissent and the media

Finally, the third great challenge facing the continent is the rampant suppression of dissent and censorship of the media. Despite the burgeoning of vibrant and active media sectors in most African states, they continuously come under numerous assaults that threaten them to freely express their opinions. It is indeed sad that most of the continents’ journalists operate under the hovering threat of being arrested, prosecuted by using antiterrorism and public incitement laws. For instance, Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, where they constantly become victims of their own government or other extremist elements. Naturally continued harassment, unnecessary obstruction, and intimidation of the media and dissenting groups combined to create a chilling effect on free expression seems to undercut the important role of the media to act as a watchdog of governments’ transgressions against the laws of their countries.

Ultimately, the surest way to bringing about change of Africa’s current state of despair would be to elect effective leaders, fight corruption to the bone and free the media to do its sacred job of overseeing government institutions. In the 2016 elections, Somalia will have that “second” chance again to elect an effective leadership with good ethics that’s free of corruption and self-enrichment.

Heikal I. Kenneded

[email protected]

Kinshasa, Congo DRC



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