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Africa: Still the dark continent beyond the pale?

By Stephen Chan, Professor of international relations, School of Oriental and African Studies, London
Posted on Friday, 13 March 2015 16:19

Even so, the basic response of the West was to quarantine the disease. African governments also adopted this falsely reassuring measure: locking down slum areas and entire communities without first ensuring that the slum population had enough to eat.

A continent larger than the US, EU, China and India together is reduced to caricature

Western popular media warned against travelling to Africa, even though the distance from Monrovia to Cape Town is almost as vast as from Monrovia to New York.

When the virus popped up in the US and Europe, however, the option of quarantine finally fell away.

If the West was complacent, then the shocking scandal of it all was Liberia, a country of four and a quarter million people, failing to muster 100 doctors of its own.

Poor sanitation, poor health education, poor health budgets, poor stocks of medicine, poor stocks of protective clothing – everything spoke of governments that either did not care about the health of citizens or stole the money in the health budgets.

Quarantining the cabinet in an Ebola-infested slum area might bring some terrible realities home to roost.

The outbreak once again propelled Africa into the headlines as the failed continent.

Just when it seemed that news was filtering through about a rising middle class, better educational opportunities and global aspirations, it became again the continent of disease and war.

And those wars were not just any wars.

No one in the West has cared about the estimated two million fatalities in the endless wars of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

No one has cared about the mass gendercide that has accompanied what some have called genocide.

But the minute those wars involved Islamic rebels – Boko Haram in Nigeria, the insurgents that swept through Mali and Central African Republic (CAR), adding to the spectacle of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the earlier atrocities of the Janjaweed in Darfur – then the West saw Africa as the catastrophic continent.

And here, too, the governments of Africa have responded in a lacklustre manner.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan must live in a hermetically sealed enclosure, and his army – with a history of seizing power by force – could not make headway against people who had the means and the will to fight back.

The Islamic rebels in Nigeria, Mali and CAR all share one key attribute: far more modern battlefield doctrine than the conventionally trained commanders of official armies.

In a way, that modernity is a throwback to Napoleon: concentrate with speed at your enemy’s weakest point and break through with overwhelming power.

That is what the rebel armies also have: huge mobility and speed. They outmanoeuvre and out-gun all sent against them – except the French.

They cut through the South Africans in CAR like a knife through butter – notwithstanding the revisionist accounts instantly published by Pretoria.

And the ‘success’ of the South Africans and Tanzanians against the Mouvement du 23 Mars rebels in the DRC owes as much to diplomatic pressure on Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame as any battle prowess.

But this means that governments have provided insufficiently for health and insufficiently for defence.

Have they provided sufficiently for anything? Is there nothing unstolen?

This is where the great successes of Africa are located, however: not within governments but within those groups of citizens who stand in protest against governments.

The civic action and civil society groups – with their newly found and exploited means of instant electronic communication – become, at last, forces of mobilisation and pressure.

The growth of African corporations that try valiantly and often successfully not to operate in corrupt ways, knowing they cannot do so and last long as global players, means that corporate globalism also has a role to play.

Ransacking a country is one thing; ransacking it transparently is another. And, as transparency increases, ransacking can only decrease.

Responsible African corporations have as important a role to play as responsible non-governmental organisations.

And so, therefore, do African lawyers and, through them, judiciaries, and the media that reports on them all.

Of course there are those heroic doctors and nurses who, without proper medical supplies and equipment, stood and fought the Ebola outbreak, often falling victim to the disease themselves.

There is also the example of Colonel Adeboye Obasanjo, the son of a former Nigerian president, being wounded as he stood and fought Boko Haram.

There are examples of social and institutional leadership that match any efforts at commitment and resistance anywhere in the world.

This, however, is not enough for the world’s media, where a continent that could fit within it the US, the EU, China and India, with quite some room to spare, is reduced to a caricature.

Perhaps the media merely reflects the cavalier attitude of Western world leaders. President Barack Obama has hardly portrayed himself as committed to Africa.

Prime Minister David Cameron has gone through three ministers for Africa, so that there is no continuity of policy.

Those appointed were hardly party heavyweights and household names either.

It is not regarded as a position from which one rises.

Only France makes much of Africa – but that only to reinforce the idea of Francophonie and France’s leading role in it.

What, finally, is to be done? It does come down to leadership. So let me say a few characteristically controversial things.

It is time for the last vestiges of the old freedom-fighter generation to die off.

Time for younger and fresher blood, and not the sort that comes from wholesale blood transfusions to prolong life in East Asian private hospitals.

It is time for new ideas. As for the oligarchs, there are two things.

Firstly, you can only drive one limousine at a time. Secondly, what legacy will you leave your children?

Perhaps it is time at last for Africa to undertake that curious laundering process that American cattle barons, railway barons and robber barons of all stripes undertook.

They set up huge foundations, built universities and medical schools, and clawed their way not only to mansions on the hill but to addresses without shame.
It comes down to leadership. It comes down to leadership having shame.

Otherwise, send them all, fleet of limousine by fleet of limousine, to a quarantined zone in an Ebola slum. ●

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