A plea for Afro-realism

Africa has problems. But with some effort, this century will truly be the African century. A view from Britain.

Published : Dec 23, 2001 00:00 IST

In Lesotho, at the site of the Highlands Water Project to generate hydel power for the mountain kingdom and augment water supplies in South Africa. The British consulting engineering group Mott Macdonald helped with the project.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In Lesotho, at the site of the Highlands Water Project to generate hydel power for the mountain kingdom and augment water supplies in South Africa. The British consulting engineering group Mott Macdonald helped with the project.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

As the only son of Africa to become a British Minister for Africa, I want to build a genuine partnership between the continent of my birth and my adopted homeland. My policy is clear. We back success and work in partnership with Africans to overcome fail ures. Britain supports Africans who stand up for democracy. We help those who want economic reform. We work with and support those who are striving for peace. We have massively increased our aid budgets to Africa. We are leading the way on granting 100 p er cent debt relief, with the first ten African states having received it. And we are working to improve the terms of trade which have so badly penalised African countries.

A year ago, on the eve of the new millennium, there was a feeling of optimism in the air. The future looked bright. Africa had finally freed itself from colonialism and the divisive politics of the Cold War. It was ready to decide its own future. The tal k was of an 'African Renaissance'.

But, since then - at least if we are to believe the international media - Africa has suddenly taken a nosedive. Afro-pessimism once again rules supreme. Commentators call Africa "the hopeless continent", riven by conflict, bad leadership and economic fai lure. They seem almost relieved. Why? Because it lets the international community off the hook. If Africa is "hopeless", then nothing can be done. With a shrug of the shoulders, attention can turn away.

Of course it is hard to be an African optimist when the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies battle it out pointlessly across barren land in scenes reminiscent of 1914 Europe. When there is a resurgence of brutal conflict in Sierra Leone. When conflict continue s in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, fuelled and sustained by the illegal trade in diamonds. When government-motivated political intimidation and violence mars elections in Zimbabwe, and general reactionary policies bring a once strong count ry to the point of collapse. When there are devastating floods in Mozambique, drought in Kenya and forest fires in South Africa. When the terrifying plague of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is engulfing the continent.

It is easy to see why Afro-pessimism has dominated the headlines over the past six months. As South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has said, what happens in one part of Africa affects the continent's image as a whole. Unfair it may be. But it is also tru e. During the crisis in Zimbabwe all the caricatures of Africa - tyranny, violence, corruption, and devastation of a beautiful and successful country - were bounced back into international public opinion. President Robert Mugabe single-handedly did more to undermine both investor confidence and Africa's reputation than anything else this past year.

But what Africa needs is neither undue pessimism nor excessive optimism. It needs realism. I am an Afro realist. We need to look behind the sensationalist headlines of the moment. Africa is a huge, diverse and highly complex continent. The tragedies are great. The legacy is enormous: slavery, racism, colonialism, economic exploitation, crippling debt burdens and unequal trade terms. But the successes have not gone away. Britain's policy of building on those successes is right. We remain committed to it. There is no place for complacency. But Africa's future remains bright.

The truth is that 80 per cent of Africans are too busy fighting poverty to fight each other. Democratic pluralism is taking root. In 1973, only three African Heads of State were democratically elected. Last year the figure was 32 - ten times greater.

African leaders have shown that they now recognise that there is no longer a place at the table for dictators. Last year's OAU (Organisation of African Unity) Summit in Algiers barred from future summits unconstitutional governments who had seized power. Cote d'Ivoire and The Comores were accordingly not invited to the December Summit in Lom. This is a clear rejection of coup d'etats and juntas, in favour of accountable and transparent government. I applaud this.

And there are many individual successes: Tanzania, Botswana, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Uganda, Mauritius, to name but a few. In Tanzania, one of post-colonial Africa's fathers, Julius Nyerere, left a unified country free from the dangers of ethnic rivalry. U nder President Benjamin Mkapa, Tanzania continues on the path of political and economic reform, at peace with its neighbours and itself.

Botswana and Senegal are models of democracy. Botswana has enjoyed 36 years of multi-party democracy since independence. In Senegal, after 40 years of one-party rule, power passed peacefully to the new government on March 19.

The government of Mali is also quietly building a better future for its own citizens. It recognises that Africa's future lies in regional and economic cooperation. As chair of the Anglophone West African regional body, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), and its Francophone equivalent UEMOA, Mali is bringing the two organisations together. It is the author of the West Africa small arms moratorium adopted by ECOWAS. Britain has pledged $500,000 to help implement this far-sighted initiativ e. Taking its cue from Mali, the OAU is promoting an African small arms moratorium.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni's government has led the way in fighting the scourge of AIDS. Uganda is now a model of how the threat of AIDS can be overcome. It is also a leader in poverty alleviation, working to develop an educational infrastructu re to help children and the poor.

During a recent visit to Mauritius I saw for myself how it continues to enjoy impressive economic growth. How it is taking advantage of its natural position as a trading route to develop a free port, along with value added services in finance and IT (Inf ormation Technology). And how firmly planted is democracy and the rule of law. Mauritius could be to Africa what Singapore and the other 'Tigers' are to Asia: a platform for high quality investment on the continental mainland.

And then there are Nigeria and South Africa. Nigeria has finally emerged from 16 years of military misrule to take its rightful place as a leader in Africa and internationally. We applaud Nigeria's peacekeeping role in Sierra Leone and the steadfast comm itment Nigeria has shown to maintaining stability in West Africa. We also see Nigeria working closely with South Africa to promote democracy, peace and economic development across the continent.

And the road of reconciliation that South Africa has travelled down since the dark days of apartheid remains an inspiration not only to Africa, but to the world. We all have much to learn from the South African experience. Cyril Ramaphosa, drawing on his experience as a chief negotiator in the peaceful revolution of 1994, is now playing a vital role in supporting the peace process in Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is indebted to him. South Africa, not so long ago an outcast in the international wo rld, is now a motor for African growth and a pillar of African stability and democracy.

These success stories disprove the Afro-pessimists. Africa is not the hopeless continent. And even in those countries beset by conflict, there is hope. You can see it in the ordinary people. The civil society activists in Freetown who courageously work t owards healing their society riven by civil war. The people in Zimbabwe who voted in large numbers despite the ruling party's brutal intimidation. The sheer energy and entrepreneurial talent of market women and traders all over Africa. The resilience and ingenuity of people determined to send their children to school and work for a better future. The generosity of governments in sheltering and welcoming refugees. The continent may stand on the shoulders of its Nigerian and South African giants. But it i s on the shoulders of its ordinary men and women that Africa's future success will be built.

The record of corruption, economic mismanagement and conflict that has marred many countries in Africa is well documented. But we in the West must also accept our share of the blame for Africa's failings.

Lack of access to rich markets is one of the main hindrances to African development. Agricultural subsidies among industrialised countries amount to $300 billion a year, equal to Africa's entire gross domestic product (GDP). High tariffs, anti-dumping re gulations and technical barriers to trade in industrialised countries cost sub-Saharan African countries $20 billion annually in lost exports - $6 billion more than they receive in aid.

Despite this, Africa's economy grew for over 30 years. And the more liberal economic policies adopted in recent times have helped some African economies achieve rates of growth that are among the highest in the world. In the past five years Ghana, Uganda , Cote d'Ivoire and Mozambique have recorded average growth rates of well over 5 per cent. Botswana, Senegal, Mali, Mauritius, Mauritania and, recently with its reform programme, Kenya, are successfully attracting foreign investment. These countries show that despite the challenges, wider and deeper economic success is achievable.

But as an Afro realist I recognise that big problems remain: not only conflict, but AIDS and lack of skills.

The horrifying scourge of AIDS kills 5,500 Africans every day. Of the 34 million people infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) worldwide, 24.5 million live in central and southern Africa. HIV/AIDS is already responsible for catastrophic falls i n life expectancy. Behind each cold statistic there is a story of human tragedy. AIDS decimates families and communities. It leaves orphans. It leaves schools without teachers. It particularly hits the breadwinners and Africa's productive sectors. It kno ws no boundaries - social or geographical. But - as Uganda and Senegal have shown - AIDS can be tackled and HIV infection rates lowered. Through public education. Through preventive measures. Through appropriate treatment.

Britain is already engaged with Africa in the fight against AIDS. We are providing $14 million over five years to accelerate the pace of global AIDS vaccine research. Developing a vaccine that is safe, effective and affordable to developing countries wit hin 10 to 15 years. With UNAIDS we have also played a prominent role in developing the African Partnership Against HIV/AIDS initiative. We remain ready to work with African governments to help fight this devastating disease.

Despite all this, and as I said at the World Economic Forum in Durban in June 1999, Africa has the potential to produce "Lion" economies able to rival East Asia's successful "Tiger" economies.

A key lesson from the success of the Asian Tiger economies is the need to invest in people. As in Britain, that means education, education, education. Education must be one of top priorities. A continent which neglects its youth neglects its future.

Anyone who visits Africa knows the thirst for education that exists. Families go to great lengths and sacrifice to put their children through school. But the opportunities for many to do so are declining. In some countries in Africa, school enrolment and literacy rates are actually falling. Less than one in four of girls in rural areas attend primary school. In five years time Africa could have over 50 million children out of education.

This decline must be reversed. African governments need to ensure that resources are allocated to education. So do donor nations. Education is investment. For those who think education is expensive, try ignorance. We, and the international financial inst itutions, need to define education as an investment, not an expense. This is why more British development aid has been targeted towards schools.

Globalisation is happening fast. Africa should not be wary of this. It should instead seize the very real opportunities that are offered. In this era of globalisation Africa should not, and must not, build a wall around itself.

What are the opportunities? Global markets for goods and capital are considerably larger and more integrated today. Emerging African economies have a wider range of markets to export to. And they have a deeper pool of international capital - especially f oreign direct investment (FDI) - to draw on. Governments must focus on delivering quality to international standards, and creating a political environment which attracts, rather than scares off, potential foreign investors.

Much progress has already been achieved in promoting economic liberalisation. But it remains hard to do business in Africa. Bureaucracy, red-tape and corruption often deters: it adds 10 per cent to company costs, leading international businesses have tol d me. So they go elsewhere in a world where capital is mobile. Consequently, although the rates of return for multinational investors in Africa are the highest in the world, FDI per head in sub-Saharan Africa in 1998 was just $6, compared with $123 in La tin America. The deterrents have to be broken down. Greater export opportunities drive economic growth. Free the traders. Let people sell and the markets buy.

Africa is also well placed to exploit exciting new technologies. Somali pastoralists using mobile phones to price the cost of goats in Jeddah, allowing them to operate in the wider world outside the confines of inefficient state-owned fixed line systems, is a graphic illustration of the possibilities. Mobile phone use is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Using mobile phones, wireless telephony and battery-powered laptops, Africans - whether from an isolated rural village or from a town or city - now have the potential to link into, and be part of, the global market.

Ten years from now the biggest difference between the world's regions would not be culture or climate, but participation in the knowledge economy. Africa must not miss this opportunity. Internet access is cheap and easy. African countries need to plan fo r their integration into the global e-economy, to create an e-Africa. But to do so with a distinctive agenda that does not rely on fixed link infrastructure which is prohibitively expensive in a continent so poor and with vast areas so remote.

The same problem of lack of fixed infrastructure applies to energy supply. Currently only 9 per cent of Africans outside South Africa have access to any form of electricity. That means over 533 million people are effectively cut off from the benefits of modern technology. And these numbers are growing as electrification fails to keep pace with population growth and grid extension stalls owing to high costs.

The African climate provides its own opportunities. One thing Africa is not short of is sun. Photo-voltaic cells can be used to provide electricity for rural infrastructure provision, for water pumping, vaccine refrigeration, lighting for rural schools a nd domestic power systems. Solar power offers real potential for rural social and economic development by providing enough electricity for lighting, heating and communications - and refrigeration for drugs in health centres in remote rural areas. BP Sol ar is leading the way. It has installed lighting and vaccine refrigeration systems in Zambian and Ethiopian health centres. Of course it is not cheap. But pre-payment systems being pioneered in southern Africa can help avoid prohibitive capital costs, as a joint project by Shell and Eskom has demonstrated in the eastern Cape where 6,000 poor black households have been connected.

The potential is huge. BP Solar alone is aiming for a 600 per cent increase in worldwide revenues by 2007, to $1 billion a year. BP Solar recently completed a project installing 50,000 lighting systems for remote communities in Indonesia, and provided 3, 000 systems for hospitals, community centres and schools in the Philippines.

To reach everybody in Africa in need of energy, we must ensure that current aid flows through the World Bank and bilateral assistance programmes are used more effectively by developing countries to promote the use of renewable energy, like solar energy. I see much scope for the European Union and other donors to build new public/private partnerships in this area. Creating the conditions for market development - and enabling African entrepreneurs to take advantage of new opportunities.

The time is right for the African economies to fulfil their economic potential. The opportunities are there. But the industrialised countries also need to rise to the challenge if the African lions are to roar.

Greater access to rich markets must be opened up. At British urging, the E.U. is now committed to granting duty and quota free access for essentially all exports from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by 2005. The U.K. is calling for free access for a ll products from the LDCs over the longer term. We also support the early launch of a new round of trade negotiations, which should be broad based and sensitive to developing countries' concerns.

On debt, 33 of the 41 countries classified as heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs) are in Africa. Debt is a heavy burden on African governments. We are working to ensure that the HIPC initiative is implemented effectively and quickly. But much more re mains to be done. In the U.K., we have taken the lead in pressing for debt forgiveness. Our pledge to provide 100 per cent debt forgiveness for the poorest countries which meet HIPC criteria, is now matched by all the G-7 countries. The world must not tu rn its back on Africa - Britain certainly will not do so.

Investment, development and aid will help. But Africa needs peace if it is to excel. Countries at war with themselves or their neighbours cannot move forward. Far too many sub-Saharan African countries are in conflict, causing an estimated 4,000 deaths a week.

We are doing what we can to help the cause of peace in Africa. In Sierra Leone we have led the international response to the appalling tragedy of a vicious civil war. We helped the Nigerian-led West African force, ECOMOG, resist the rebel onslaught on Fr eetown. We helped broker the subsequent peace deal. We are now helping the U.N. and the Government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to restore peace once again. A lasting peace that delivers the security for which ordinary Sierra Leoneans yearn. We will h elp rebuild the country, including the Sierra Leonean army so that it can assume its proper role as the guarantor of the security of its own people.

We have been active in supporting all those working towards a peaceful resolution in Africa's continental war, in the Congo. We remain ready to support the Lusaka peace plan: with money, people, political support and a U.N. force.

Angola is a country of immense natural resources - potentially the richest nation on the continent - that has been ravaged by three decades of war. The most urgent priority is an end to the civil war. That is why I have pressed for tighter enforcement of sanctions against UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), and engaged the international community on tackling conflict diamonds. I have named and shamed sanctions violators. I have welcomed the Angolan government's new diamond certi fication scheme, and stressed the importance of ensuring its credibility so that it might form the model for schemes elsewhere in Africa. I have also welcomed the Angolan Government's commitment to badly needed economic reform and the fact that it has ag reed to a staff monitored programme with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). This is vital to take Angola forward and to eradicate not just war but corruption too.

Conflicts in Africa have been commercialised. Illicit diamonds are now bankrolling and fuelling wars in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We need to work to cut off the supply of "conflict diamonds" and deny the RUF (Revolu tionary United Front) and UNITA the means to wage war. But we also need to protect the legitimate trade in diamonds on which so many livelihoods depend, particularly in producer nations such as Botswana, South Africa and Namibia - and also in India where as much as one million people are employed in the Mumbai area cutting and polishing rough diamonds.

We need a global certification scheme for rough diamonds and a plan to attach warranties to all invoices of parcels of rough diamonds stating that no "conflict diamonds" are included in any shipment. There will be stiff penalties for dealers violating th e code. There will be pressure on banks and insurers used by the diamond trade to push for compliance. The international diamond industry has now agreed on tough measures against diamonds which fuel war while protecting the vast majority which fuel prosp erity. The United Nations General Assembly passed an Indian-sponsored resolution in early December backing such an international scheme. We now need to negotiate quickly a legally binding international agreement on a certification scheme for rough diamon ds. Action must follow - and soon - so that rebel forces in Angola, Sierra Leone and the DRC are blocked from financing their wars through diamond sales.

A key plank of British policy towards Africa is the support and encouragement of good governance. For the continent to realise its huge potential it must promote democracy, human rights, transparency and the rule of law and pursue substantive economic po licies.

Yet I have been struck over the last year at the lack of urgency, sometimes even complacency, among some African leaders about the need to address Africa's problems. I say to them, these problems exist. Let us work together to overcome them. The rest of the world is moving on, economically and technologically. If Africa is not to get left even further behind, it must move on too, driving economic modernisation and good governance.

So, I do not subscribe to the views of the prophets of doom on Africa. I recognise the problems. But my view is one of realism: Afro Realism. We will continue to support the success stories in Africa and remain ready to help those countries working to pu t behind them conflict and private greed in pursuit of peace and prosperity. If we can succeed, the 21st Century will truly be the African Century and Thabo Mbeki's dream of an African renaissance will be fulfilled.

Peter Hain is British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and has made ministerial visits to India twice. He was brought up in South Africa until as a teenager his parents were forced to leave because of their anti-apartheid activit ies in 1966. He later became a leader of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1960s and 1970s and is the author of 15 books including Sing The Beloved Country: The Struggle For The New South Africa (London, Pluto Press, 1996).

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment