THIS MONTH'S THEME
Boys with guns. A rebel army which cuts off people's limbs. A civil war only kept under control by heroic white soldiers (Sierra Leone). Aggressive ex-combatants seizing farms. White farmers murdered. A wild-eyed leader who will do anything to hold on to power (Zimbabwe). Devastating floods. People stranded and starving. Western helicopters rushing to the rescue (Mozambique).
These images come from the last few months of media coverage of Africa. They are important stories which deserve our attention and concern. And of course the media thrive on bad news. But negative news stories about our own countries will be balanced by culture, sport, political intrigue and humour. They also appear in the context of ordinary life as we experience it - a life in which we take our children to school, do our shopping, and walk in the park; a life generally free from danger and violence.
Right across Africa, the vast majority of people also do these things every day but you would never know it from the reporting: news items full of violence and disaster are the only stories told. Small wonder that the average Westerner might feel inclined to give up on the continent.
Indeed sometimes we are even told to do so. On the cover of The Economist in May there appeared a photo of a man with a rocket-launcher over his shoulder. He fills the whole outline of Africa; the issue title is 'The hopeless continent'. With one stark phrase, Africans, from diligent farmers in the Sahel to wise elders in the Rift Valley, from fellahin in Egypt to bankers in Botswana, are summarily dismissed from the ranks of our common humanity. Africa is reduced to one single, terrible reality: violence.
To understand the outrage such dismissiveness provokes in Africa itself you should perhaps imagine what it would be like to have a copy of African Agenda drop through your letterbox with a picture of a violent British soccer fan superimposed on an outline of Europe, and the title 'The hooligan continent'. Except that, of course, African Agenda, good magazine though it may be, could never be thought to have the global establishment behind it and does not carry The Economist's dead weight of power.
When the Economist issue emerged I was subscribing to an e-mail conference called 'African Realities' organized by the UN Economic Commission on Africa. This involved contributions from people all over the world interested in debating the state of Africa from economics to education, democracy to peace. But these more sober considerations were forgotten for a fortnight as people expressed their outrage at the grotesque misrepresentation. Eventually a collective protest letter was composed and mailed to the magazine.
'Your articles,' it said, 'reflect the tendency for one sensational story to "epitomize" the continent, as you note Sierra Leone does today. This is precisely what prevents the policy-makers and the public from understanding the diversity of a continent more than three times the size of Europe. The "Sierra Leone" story no more represents the entire African continent today than the "Mandela" story did in 1994.
'It is important to provide readers with a balanced view of both African success stories and crises. Reinforcing stereotypes of "backwardness" and "hopelessness" is not conducive to finding solutions to any of Africa's problems. It is also not an honest portrayal of the complex realities.'
It is not an honest portrayal. But it certainly reflects the Western world's dominant attitude to Africa.
It is true that the situation is bleak, even to those of us who love Africa. Development there has conspicuously failed. Over the two decades that I have worked for the New Internationalist if there has been one consistently encouraging global trend it has been the decline in child mortality and rise in life expectancy right across the developing world. We have become accustomed to immunization and generally higher standards of public health and nutrition delivering on the most fundamental level: giving people more years of life.
And that is broadly still the case across the developing world - except in Africa south of the Sahara. Here, average life expectancy increased from 40 years in 1960 to 52 in 1990. But it has now gone into reverse, currently standing at around 48, just as it did in 1980. The average sub-Saharan African now can expect to live 14 years less than someone in the next-poorest region, South Asia - and fully 30 years less than someone in the rich world. In Zimbabwe and Uganda, devastated by aids, life expectancy has sunk to below what it was when the 'development decades' began, in 1960.1
In economic terms the indicators have also been going into reverse. Gross national product is a thoroughly inadequate measure of human well-being. But it is the chosen yardstick of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and, by its lights, their own policies and programmes in Africa have demonstrably failed.
While every other region of the world has made steady progress on this front over the last two decades, the income per head for Africa as a whole is, at $665, lower than it was in 1980. Meanwhile average income in the rich world has shown stratospheric growth. The average Westerner in 1980 earned 15 times more than the average African; now they earn 50 times more.2
Africans looking at these figures could be forgiven for concluding that there has been a conspiracy at work to boost the wealth of the West at the expense of its former colonial subjects. These, after all, were the two decades in which African nations were forced by debt and desperation to submit to the unyielding economic orthodoxy of the World Bank and the IMF. They have followed the rules, more or less to the letter. By cutting public expenditure and government subsidies, opening up their country to transnational corporations, they have put their citizens through enormous pain, supposedly in the name of future gain. Such suffering has even passed into the language. In francophone West Africa, since the devaluation of the local currency, the popular term used to describe any person in difficulty is 'adjusted'.3
There may be no conspiracy as such but the effect is pretty much the same. Each IMF-inspired budget cut, each market liberalization, serves to turn the local economy into a more effective supplier of raw materials, of export crops and minerals - and indeed of debt interest payments - to the industrialized world.
The finesse would be almost admirable for its style were it not so morally repugnant. Direct colonial exploitation being now unfashionable, the West has evolved a way of forcing African countries to service its interests - apparently of their own free will. 'Look,' the visiting financiers say: 'the national flag flies, the President is there in his pomp; we are here by invitation. What's more, we are only here because we are trying to help.'
But finally the mirror has cracked. After four decades of national independence, African governments are being forced by the depth and scale of the continent's crisis to accept that this cannot go on. The dream that independent nation-states could aspire, via heavy doses of education and industrialization, to affluence and influence is in tatters. Nation-states in Africa are barely worthy of the term 'independent'; they now have no room for manoeuvre at all. Sad to say, in all too many cases, the only room for manoeuvre many of its leaders have wished for has involved use of a torture cell and a Swiss bank account.
As a result, in a phenomenon unlooked for even as recently as 1990, another African dream has been revived: that of Pan-African unity. The ideas of Pan-Africanism have been so discounted, so marginalized since the 1960s that few people in the West are aware of them and of the rich heritage that lies behind them.
Born of the yearning of exiled slaves for their ancestral land, Pan-Africanism had by the dawn of the twentieth century become a nascent movement resisting the colonial dismemberment of the continent (for the early history of Pan-Africanism see article here). By the 1950s, in the hands of Kwame Nkrumah, it had become an alternative path to freedom.
When Nkrumah led Ghana (the former Gold Coast) to independence from Britain in 1957, he inspired Africans resisting colonialism and seeking freedom all over the continent. His firm conviction, however, was that national independence was not enough and he spent much of his energy pursuing the possibility of a united Africa.
As another great leader, Julius Nyerere, recalled, full of regret in the last decade of his life for the missed opportunity of a united Africa: 'Kwame Nkrumah was the great crusader for African unity. He wanted the Accra summit of 1965 to establish a Union Government for the whole of independent Africa. But we failed. The minor reason is that Kwame, like all great believers, underestimated the degree of suspicion and animosity which his crusading passion had created among a substantial number of his fellow heads of state. The major reason was linked to the first: already too many of us had a vested interest in keeping Africa divided...'4
Nkrumah was toppled by a coup in 1966 and lived thereafter in exile in Guinea until his death cancer in 1972; his Pan-African ambitions seemed lost with him. During the 1970s and 1980s the influence and coherence of the Pan-African movement waned. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) became a painfully ineffective regional body, too often presided over by dictators who made a mockery of paper concern for human rights and social justice. National leaders ferociously defended the colonial borders they had inherited - there was a fear that if once these were broken open all hell might let loose. The idea of a united Africa seemed to have been consigned to the past.
Yet in the 1990s the notion of Pan-African union was born again. The liberation of South Africa helped it back to life. The failure to overcome the apartheid state had been one of the OAU's worst failures. But when freedom finally came, it unlocked new possibilities - for the first time the unity of the continent from Cape Town to Cairo could at least be conceived.
The 'sanctity' of the colonial borders has now been breached too, by Eritrea's long-sought independence from Ethiopia in 1993 - though the OAU continues to resist the plausible case for another such breach in Somaliland, which has formed its own coherent but utterly unrecognized government in a breakaway from the still-chaotic Somalia.
The sheer absurdity of the existing borders has become ever more evident. In many parts of the continent these borders are plainly and quite rightly ignored, as people trade the way they have for centuries, within and between ethnic groupings, irrespective of the lines on the colonizers' map that have divided them. From one point of view these traders are 'smugglers'; from another they are 'Pan-African entrepreneurs'.5 African leaders, too, have become more conscious than ever before that their own nation-states are unsustainable - at least within the current world economic and political arrangements. Yes, they still have their ten-gun salutes and their military parades, their presidential palaces and their motorcades. But the more intelligent among them have realized that their power to change their people's circumstances is severely circumscribed, and that if they want to make a difference they will have no alternative but to swim in a bigger pool.
The main influence propelling Africans towards greater economic and political unity, however, is globalization. Faced with a trading system which insists on transnational capital having carte blanche, Africans are increasingly recognizing that they will have to stand together if they are to defend (or advance) their own interests. As individual nation-states within artificial borders they can too easily be picked off or played against each other by the corporations and the global accountants in a post-colonial version of divide-and-rule.
Both the threat and the example of the European Union have given the idea of an African Union new impetus - and an African bloc incorporating the economic weight of both South Africa and the oil states of the Maghreb would have infinitely more clout than even the most populous nation, Nigeria, let alone minnows like Togo or Cape Verde. There is little likelihood, for example, of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council being granted to any single African country - but an African Union representing a tenth of the world's people could hardly be denied it.
At the OAU summit in Abuja, Nigeria, in 1991, a treaty was signed establishing an African Economic Community and holding out the prospect of 'Africa-wide monetary union' and a continental Parliament by the year 2025. But the long timetable led to understandable suspicion that this was mere rhetoric. As the Pan-African scholar Julius O Ihonvbere wrote in 1994: 'Given that none of the current leaders will be in office by 2025, the current decision to finalize arrangements for a regional community in 34 years appears to be an attempt to buy time and give the impression that something was being done as a response to the crisis.'6
The headlong onrush of globalization in the 1990s has, however, made it clear that this leisurely pace towards a united Africa is inadequate. Prompted by the Libyan leader, Muammar Qadhafi, the OAU held an extraordinary summit in Sirte, Libya, in September 1999, and committed itself to a fast-track process. The Sirte Declaration decided to establish an African Union, to 'ensure the speedy establishment of... the African Central Bank, the African Monetary Union, the African Court of Justice and, in particular, the Pan-African Parliament. We aim to establish that Parliament by the year 2000.'
This deadline looks to be too ambitious but it signals the new sense of urgency. As we go to press the draft treaty for an African union - which would completely replace the OAU - has been approved by an extra-ordinary ministerial council and will be put to a summit meeting in Lomé in July. Such radical moves toward international unity only ever tend to come to fruition after a cataclysm, just as painful memories of the Second World War provided the motivating force for both the United Nations and the European Union. But make no mistake: Africa has undergone a disaster equivalent in scale to a world war over the last two decades, and unity may well be the eventual result here too.
Of course there will be all kinds of obstacles in the road over the next few years. The Francophone countries, for instance, have historically been the least keen on the notion of Pan-African union. But even that negative consensus, based on a special relationship with Paris and a direct link to the French franc, has been undermined in the last few years by another example of continental unity - when France entered the European single currency it was unable to take its former African colonies' currencies along for the ride.
Ironically one of the main stumbling blocks may be a development which in itself underlines the slow death of the African nation-state: the move towards regional unity. The most notable example of this is, like Pan-Africanism, a resurrection of an old idea: Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda have agreed to form an East African Union like that first planned by Nyerere, Kenyatta and Obote in the early 1960s; an East African passport is envisaged, together with eventual expansion to include Rwanda and Burundi. This makes a great deal of sense but may detract from the momentum towards a wider union.
Even if it eventually comes about, a United States of Africa would not, needless to say, be a panacea for all the continent's ills. If it were to work, power would have not only to be handed upwards to a federal administration but also transferred downwards to local areas and communities, enhancing genuine participation and democracy. Realizing that greater unity carries with it the nightmare possibility of a bigger stage for the kind of despots with which too many African nations have been blighted, the OAU last year established a new rule which will from now on exclude from its table and its consultations any leader who has come to power by military coup. A simple rule - but one which betokens a dramatic sea change since the 1980s when most of the continent's leaders owed their position to the gun.
There is a chance that Pan-African institutions and sensibilities could help unlock some of the continent's more intractable problems. It is at least arguable that there would be less scope for ethnic conflict or national rivalry within an African Union than at present - countries are often chronically destabilized in part by a colonial border which divides an ethnic group in two or three. The current peace process in Burundi - a painstaking programme overseen first by Nyerere and now by Mandela - is in itself an encouraging example of a Pan-African initiative aimed at forestalling another genocide (see article). On the aids front, meanwhile, it is much easier to imagine a coherent programme of action emerging from a federal government than from national leaders, too many of whom have adopted an ostrich mentality (see article).
This may be over-optimistic. But we would rather err on the side of hope than of despair. And while The Economist and a hundred other leader-writers in the West would have us believe that Foday Sankoh's atrocities in Sierra Leone sum up the continent, we would rather focus on the resilience and resourcefulness of the millions of Africans who have never held a gun. This silent majority could shake the world if it spoke with a single voice.
In one tiny, though fascinating, way it already has. The BBC World Service recently conducted its own poll asking people from the continent who was the greatest African of the twentieth century. The result, they thought, would be a foregone conclusion: yet more eulogies to Nelson Mandela were planned. Instead they were shocked to find that Kwame Nkrumah won by a mile, an index of the rising stock of the Pan-Africanism he embodied. Nkrumah did not live to see it, but 'Africa United' may well be an idea whose time has finally come.
1 UNICEF State of the World's Children 1982, 1992, 1997 and 2000.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7