(Honduras 1967–69, Togo 1970–73; PC Staff: Togo, Gabon, Niger 1973–77)
My friends say I was born and raised in Kansas, but I was made in Africa. After a lifetime of doing almost nothing except dreaming, thinking, reading, writing about and working in Africa, I can see why this is said about me.
I first stepped on the continent in 1970 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo and stayed much longer than expected. I ended up knowing firsthand in varying degrees each of Africa’s 54 countries. My marriages to African women, the raising of our children in Africa and my close involvement with my extended families taught me a great deal about what makes Africa tick.
I never planned to spend a lifetime so wrapped up with Africa. One thing led to another and most of the time I did not know what the next thing would be. I know I possess an adventurous spirit and was affected by reading at a young age the best-selling book, I Married Adventure, published in 1940 by another Kansan, Osa Johnson, but my African saga was not planned and totally unexpected.
In February 2002, I published an article entitled, “My 30 Years in Africa: Still Searching for the Answers.” Ten years later I published a similar article. Now, almost 50 years later I am still asked for answers. Sadly, I have fewer answers today than I had decades ago. This is mainly because today’s Africa is not the same as I knew years ago, and the continent is changing faster in ways that are unknowable.
I find it a daunting challenge to write anything about this huge and highly complex continent, but I cannot remain silent. I may not have the answers, but I have much to say when it comes to the subject of Africa. This is especially the case because I find most Americans know little about Africa. It is my hope that by writing this article more Americans will care and know more about Africa.
Since 2015, I have spent much time in the U.S. During this time, I have not seen in the local newspapers any articles on Africa. It is also rare to see anything on TV about Africa. If Americans have some awareness of Africa, it is because of some dramatic headline in the news. For example, when I tell people I have been living in Africa, their first reaction is ‘Ebola.’ It is as if the entire continent was defined by an outbreak of a disease that occurred in three small coastal countries in West Africa and isolated areas of Eastern Congo.
It is true that many of the news stories about Africa are negative because bad news sells better than good news and there is a limited market for stories about Africa. I am sure the reader has seen occasionally media coverage of war, famine, terrorist attacks, HIV/AIDS, malaria and Ebola somewhere in Africa in recent years. Africa does have its share, actually more than its fair share, of these negative events. I do not want to diminish the importance of these negative developments, but I would also like there to be some recognition that good things are also happening on this troubled continent.
I try to keep Africa in perspective. It is a continent of 54 distinct independent countries, which is more than one-quarter of all members of the United Nations. Consequently, it is misleading to treat it as a single unit. Africa has an estimated total population of 1.2 billion people. This is more than three times the population of the U. S. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), but not North Africa, is experiencing the world’s highest urbanization and population growth rates. Africa also has a youthful population structure, with 50 percent of its people below the age of 19. Yet it generally has the oldest leaders in the world.
Given its high fertility rate and its failure to achieve a demographic transition, Africa’s population is projected to surpass that of China or India in a couple of years. This huge growth in Africa’s population will be achieved in spite of infant and child mortality rates which continue to be far too high. The most populated country in Africa, Nigeria, will have more people than the U.S. in 2050 when it will be the third most populated country in the world.
Africa is so large geographically that you could fit the United States, China, India, and all of Europe within its borders. It is three times the size of the continental U.S. Africa is also a complex mosaic of over 2,000 ethnic groups that speak a multitude of languages and dialects and practice a vast variety of customs.
Africa contains a large number of diverse ecological zones…deserts, savanna, dense jungles and the snows of the lofty 19,341-feet height of Mount Kilimanjaro, its highest mountain. It is the only continent that stretches from northern temperate to southern temperate climate zones. Perhaps, Africa is best known for its amazing variety of wildlife which cannot be seen anywhere else on the globe.
One should also keep in mind that the vast majority of African countries became independent in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The legacy of their previous colonial masters still has a large influence and European languages (English, French, Portuguese and Spanish) have become official languages for many countries. The artificial way the colonial powers created borders between countries is also a legacy that continues to be the cause of some tension. It is notable that most African countries have been independent for as long as the U.S. was independent before it experienced its Civil War.
Except for oil, some minerals (chromium, cobalt, coltan, platinum, uranium) and the fight against terrorism, U.S. strategic interests in Africa are minimal. The U.S.’s main interest has traditionally been of a humanitarian nature and one linked to the fact that over 12 percent of its population can trace its origins to Africa. The practice of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries has left a heavy legacy on the U.S. as well as on large swaths of Africa. Of course, the whole world is interested in Africa because it is considered to be the cradle of humankind.
Africa: A Mixed Bag of Good and Bad
The negative events in Africa which have continued for long periods of time are concentrated in a few countries: a sporadic but very bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a protracted war in Sudan and now South Sudan, and a failed state in Somalia since 1991 are notable in this regard. Some long-standing civil wars—Angola, Mozambique, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—ended years ago and these countries have progressively become largely conflict-free. Some very deadly but short-lived conflicts—the brutal Ethiopia-Eritrea border war in 1998-2000, the Somali invasion of Ethiopia in 1977, the Biafra independence movement in Nigeria in the 1960s, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and recently ended the civil war in Côté d’Ivoire are now hopefully becoming part of Africa’s troubled past.
A continued increase in violent terrorist activities executed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in western Africa and Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, and more recently in the far-northern part of Mozambique, are of real concern. Recent sectarian violence in the Central African Republic and the murderous actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria are also of serious concern. In addition, the advent of organized crime and the international drug trade is also unsettling.
Unfortunately, the Arab Spring in North Africa has resulted in conflict in Egypt, terrorist attacks in Tunisia, and a virtual failed state in Libya. Currently, Burkina Faso, a country dear to my heart, is suffering from the aftermath of a popular insurrection, an attempted military coup and an increasing number of violent attacks perpetrated by terrorist groups. It is yet to be seen if these groups will take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and spread the virus, or if they will be held in check by it.
The number of African countries which have never experienced significant conflict since gaining independence should not be overlooked. Among these countries are Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana, and Morocco. Identification of the factors contributing to their stability may be worthy of closer examination.
There is some good economic news. Over the past decade or so, African countries have on average experienced an annual five percent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate, even during the 2007-2009 economic recession in the West. During this same period of time, the annual GDP growth rate in the U.S was less than half this amount. There has also been an impressive rise in foreign investment, particularly from China, which is playing a huge role in Africa.
Sadly, in 2020, the international economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 virus pandemic and a fall in oil prices are likely to reverse this economic growth trend. Moreover, Africa is ill-prepared to deal with the devastating impact of the pandemic on its health, economic and political systems. The pandemic could deal something of a final knock-out blow to the more fragile countries, especially those countries already highly debt stressed.
Prior to the pandemic, there was already an urgent need for those in relevant decision-making positions to re-visit the basic viability of each country, particularly the borders imposed upon some countries. These arbitrary borders are mostly the same as were inherited from the colonialists following the great scramble for Africa by colonial powers following their historic Berlin Conference in 1884-85.
In this regard, when the Organization of the African Unity (OAU) was established in 1963, these artificial colonial borders were deemed inviolable. The OAU was re-baptized the Africa Union (AU) in 2002, but no questions were raised about the old borders. Meanwhile, the AU continued to tarnish its leadership image by designating as its chairperson African national presidents with sordid backgrounds and poor records of governance in their home countries. The AU could do a much better job of leading Africa, but it does not.
Despite all the handicaps and challenges, there have been dramatic increases in the percentage of children attending both primary and secondary schools. However, there is a pressing need to improve the quality of education and classroom conditions. History has shown that no country in the world can move to higher stages of development until a majority of its population has benefitted from quality primary school education. Sadly, there are still too many people, especially women, in Africa who are illiterate.
Although Ebola and, before that, HIV/AIDS have previously dominated the health news out of Africa, there has been progressing on many fronts. Polio, with huge financial backing from Rotary International, has been reduced to almost zero. Lesser-known diseases such as Guinea worm (dracunculiasis) are now confined to a small number of isolated locations, and progress is being made in rolling back Africa’s biggest killer, malaria. Much work remains to be done to ensure safe drinking water and good sanitation for millions of Africans. It is notable that in 1960 the average life expectancy in Africa was 40 years. An African born in 2013 can expect on the average to live 59 years, still the lowest age for any continent, but an improvement of 19 years since 1960, and it is thought this longevity age will continue to rise, barring any pandemic health setbacks.
There have been enormous improvements in infrastructure, especially roads, railways, dams, ports, and public and private buildings. However, Africa’s infrastructure deficit remains quite large. The African cities I knew in the 1970s are no longer recognizable because there has been so much new construction and growth in their size. Providing for the basic needs of this rapidly growing urban population poses huge challenges.
What Does the Future Hold for Africa?
But what about the future of Africa? As noted earlier, SSA is predicted to have the most rapid population growth of any world region through the end of this century. This has huge implications for the continent. Having a younger population can be a good thing because it usually increases worker productivity. But if African countries are unable to create jobs for all of these additional people, there will be a high level of discontent among young people. This ‘youth-bulge,’ therefore, can lead to greater political instability and provide foot soldiers for terrorist groups. It is often said that the real litmus test of development is job creation.
As noted above, Africa is urbanizing rapidly, but too much of that urban growth is caused by the expansion of slums. Also, if too many Africans move from farms to urban centers without major improvements in agricultural production, this will put more pressure on the food supply. Most African countries are currently fast-growing net importers of food.
The projections for the growth of religion in Africa are interesting. North Africa is overwhelmingly Muslim and will remain so. By 2050, in SSA, Christians will remain the largest religious group. But Islam is growing faster in SSA than Christianity. Muslims will number about 670 million by 2050. This means that by 2050, SSA will be about 59 percent Christian and 35 percent Muslim. Of course, these percentages do not consider the millions of Africans who continue traditional ancestral worship and animistic practices.
While there are many unknowns about climate change, the average temperature in Africa has already risen and is projected to experience a further rise in the future. In general, many experts believe the tropical areas of the world will be more impacted by climate change than the temperate zones. Already, rising sea levels have devastated coastal communities. It is predicted the impacts of climate change in Africa will be more negative than positive.
Southern, Central, West, and North Africa may experience more droughts while East Africa may have fewer. Most parts of Africa will have greater variability in rainfall, which will pose a major challenge for farmers. Pastoralists may have to move their livestock over greater distances to find greener pastures and water points. These movements will undoubtedly increase the already numerous conflicts between pastoralists and agriculturalists. Traditionally, a big divide in Africa is between pastoralists and agriculturalists.
African national economies remain heavily dependent on the export of a single commodity such as oil, specific export crops and other minerals. To stay competitive in the future, African economies need to diversify. There is also a need to reduce transportation costs and facilitate cross-border trade. The agreement to create a single continental market is promising. Tourism will remain important in a number of African countries and should become a growing industry.
It is estimated that Africa has 60 percent of the world’s agriculturally productive land. If properly developed and managed, and if Africa improves its use of agricultural inputs and increases crop irrigation, it has the potential to not only feed everyone on the continent but become a major food exporter. This will require major efforts to resolve land tenure issues and raise soil fertility so higher crop yields can be achieved. Africa as a region has the lowest average crop yields in the world and 65 percent of its soils are estimated to be degraded. At the same time, rapid deforestation and the over-grazing of pasture lands are major problems. It is difficult to build a rising standard of living on a falling level of soil fertility and land productivity.
In the meantime, too many Africans remain hungry and up to 40 percent of the children in many African countries suffer the permanent damage caused by stunting. There are more hungry and malnourished children in Africa now than ever before and their number is growing. A major contributor to the cause of the death of children under five years of age is malnutrition. It is very difficult for a country to advance if a high percentage of its people are malnourished.
Africa is using only eight percent of its hydropower capacity and has an estimated 50 percent of the world’s potential renewable energy … hydropower, solar, and wind. It is said that in terms of the quantity of electrical lighting Africa remains a dark continent. It can be safely asserted that Africa is the most energy deficit continent in the world. Without affordable and reliable electricity, it is not possible to achieve Africa’s full development potential.
The reliance of most Africans on charcoal and firewood for cooking is an unsustainable practice. An increase in the use of alternative cooking methods does not offer a sufficient solution. Meanwhile, the mass burning of charcoal and wood pollutes the atmosphere and contributes heavily to deforestation. At the same time, the ancient slash and burn cultivation method helps diminish the fertility of the soil and releases massive quantities of pollutants into the air.
Africa is also well behind the rest of the world in information and communication technology. But it is making a serious effort to improve in this sector and is in a position to leapfrog much out-of-date technology and install the most modern equipment available. The use of the latest technological advances to reduce poverty in Africa is a much-welcomed trend.
In addition to addressing high youth unemployment, it must work to avoid a rise in poverty in the rapidly expanding urban areas. As things stand now, the greatest concentration of poverty in the world is in Africa. There are also critical challenges posed by serious income and gender inequality issues. It will be difficult for a number of African countries to move ahead as long as their women are held back.
Many African countries have not measured up when it comes to democratic governance, the development of civil society, building strong institutions, and combatting corruption. Internal political conflict and gross economic mismanagement have been too common in Africa. The continent will never fully succeed until more countries make the transition to good governance, social harmony, and political stability.
Many people claim the practice of democracy is one of the answers to Africa’s development challenges. I have always believed that democracy is only desirable in Africa to the extent that it works to reduce poverty. Furthermore, it is rare that a word for democracy exists in local African languages. The words used today by Africans to communicate the word, “democracy,” are usually words they have confectioned from European languages. However, most African languages have always had a word for justice. Therefore, I believe the focus should be on promoting economic and social justice.
I add that it is probably not possible to propagate a democratic system in African countries where a high percentage of the people are unschooled and agrarian-based. An uneducated public is easily manipulated by unscrupulous wealthy politicians. This lopsided situation contributes to democracy being about an inch deep and a mile wide in Africa. Most elections held in Africa are a sham and costly in monetary terms. Recently, the thin veneer of democracy in Africa has grown thinner as power-greedy leaders work to extend their time in office.
As noted above, there has been an upsurge in terrorism and religious extremism and, sadly, this relatively new trend shows no signs of abating. These negative developments contribute greatly to an increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and more out-migration; this negative trend must be reversed. Currently, according to the UNHCR, there are more IDPs and refugees (about 20 million) in Africa than ever before. And, it is now feared that the COVID-19 pandemic will kill many people who are crowded together in refugee camps.
In the UN Development Program’s 2019 Human Development Index, 32 of the 35 countries categorized as the least developed in the world are in Africa. Nine countries ranked (181 to 189) at the bottom of the list are in Africa. These sad statistics underscore that Africa is the world’s poorest and least developed continent. It is chilling to recognize that far too many Africans are locked in a daily struggle for survival. One statistic shows the average African lives on about 70 U.S. cents per day.
These harsh facts underscore the many daunting challenges facing most African countries. There is much complicated and difficult work to do and there is no time to lose. Every effort needs to be made to identify clearly and prevent fragile African countries from becoming failed states.
If Africa is to find a better way forward, it must have competent and honest leadership. Unfortunately, qualified, trustworthy and inspiring leadership seems to be missing in many countries. Africa needs leaders that put the best interests of their country and people ahead of their own personal interests. Moreover, these leaders must not have blood on their hands or big bank accounts abroad. External actors should do all they can to promote and insist on such national leadership. “Tough love” should be a hallmark of all diplomatic relations with African leaders. Without this kind of genuine leadership, Africa will never have the kind of good governance it needs to advance.
I believe that with such competent, honest leadership combined with much goodwill from the rest of the world, Africa can overcome its many challenges, advance quickly and achieve a higher stage of development in the decades ahead. I hope this article contributes in some small measure to increasing an understanding of Africa and, hence, help accelerate the betterment of this complex and vast continent to which I have dedicated my life.
Biographic Information: The author retired in 1996 from the Senior Foreign Service after serving as USAID’s principal officer in six African countries. He has also worked for the Peace Corps, serving five years as a volunteer in Honduras and Togo, as well as with Non-Governmental Organizations and as a contract employee with USAID. His decades in Africa have afforded him the opportunity to have known all 54 African countries. He has published five books and completed work on a sixth book, Africa Memoir, 1970 – 2020. Much of the above article is extracted from this unpublished book.
All Rights Reserved.
Drafted: Mark G. Wentling
March 29, 2020