In DepthColumnsGuns, Growth and Africa


Posted on Friday, 04 July 2014 18:19

Guns, Growth and Africa

Patrick Smith

In Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece Chronicle of a Death Foretold, he recounts the murder of Santiago Nasar and how everyone in the town knew it was going to happen but did nothing.


On a larger canvas, we all know that the widening levels of inequality of wealth and opportunity – despite faster economic growth in so many developing countries – are leading to social division and conflict.

But, like Santiago's neighbours, most of us seem incapable of action.

Insurgent groups in Africa are repeating Pablo Escobar's formula in Columbia

It surely gladdened Márquez's heart, before he died in April, to see the transformation of Medellín in his native Colombia.

Over the past decade, Medellín has changed from a fiefdom run by drug cartels to a culturally and technologically innovative city offering world-class education free to its poorest citizens. That is a global lesson.

It was the extreme inequality and lack of public services in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s that helped recruit runners and mules for the cartels of drug bosses such as Pablo Escobar.

He then used money he earned from cocaine trafficking to buy the loyalty of communities long neglected by the government.

Escobar ruled his fiefdom with a mix of criminal largesse and extreme violence.

With widely differing political agendas, insurgent groups in Africa are repeating Escobar's formula, exploiting inequalities and state indifference, even as bankers and economists roll out news of record-breaking growth.

Few African states are following the Medellín path.

As Africa's newly crowned top economy and the site of a ruthless insurgency, Nigeria clearly makes the case.

In Borno State, where the 230 school-girls were abducted by the Boko Haram militia, the adult literacy rate is below 60%; in Lagos, the commercial capital and headquarters of international banks and oil companies, it is around 90%.

The cycle of worsening inequality, lack of opportunity and economic breakdown reinforced by violent insurrection is undermining Nigeria's development chances and productive investment – not just in the north-east but in parts of the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta, where oil theft and militant attacks are on the rise again.

Across the continent in Kenya, shootouts and bombings along the coast and in North Eastern Province are unnerving locals, let alone tourists and big investors.

Seemingly muscular economic fundamentals in Nigeria and Kenya are no safeguard against these crises.

The same syndrome springs up in smaller and weaker economies: Mali, Central African Republic, Sudan and now South Sudan.

Journalists offer good early-warning systems of the toxic combination of inequality, corruption and social breakdown.

That is why Ethiopia convened a colloquium of economists, security specialists and African leaders to the Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa in April to show how the crooked trade and procurement deals that are selling Africa short will also lead to crises and conflict.

The experts have spoken, the evidence is on the table: now it requires political action. ●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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