Does Africa have a future? Veteran British journalist asks

John Otim

Nile Journal takes up Jonathan Power’s new book and focuses on his take on Africa




Towards the end of Conundrums of Humanity in which he ranges all over the world Jonathan Power takes a trip across Africa. He stops for a while in Nigeria and Tanzania, his favorite countries. On his mind is the big question: does Africa have a future; the same question that in recent time had engaged the attention of many within and outside Africa, including Time Magazine.

Power follows the African story back to the heady days of independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Africa was awakening and the place was full of hopes for a new dawn. Africa was then as now, a continent endowed with resources waiting only to be tapped and put to good use. In several countries across the continent bold new steps were being taken and progress made as the new nationalist leaders fell upon the task of nation building.

In the vast territory of northern Nigeria for instance, this is a territory the size of Europe, where in colonial time only a handful of schools existed, scores of new schools were established and many more kids were enrolled in schools. In Uganda for example, new hospitals sprung up to add to those already in place. While Africa was training its own personnel, young foreign doctors, teachers and other professionals arrived to fill the gap. Now in control of their own destiny Africans were setting the pace.

Many romantics from America and from the old industrial world rushed to the new world to see how they could help, among them the young Jonathan Power. Tanzania with its bold new policy of ujamaa or African socialism was the focal point of attraction for young idealists and intellectuals from abroad. How ironic that in later years Tanzania was to prove the classic case of a false start. Also making the journey to the new Africa were many adventurers and outright opportunists who came to see what might come their way.

As the years rolled and mistakes accumulated (who can avoid them) soon it became clear that all was not well in Africa. Dictatorships emerged, in many places opposition was put in jail, and the one party state became the norm. There followed a decade of instability. In the cold war climate of international intrigues, as the West and the East jostled for control and influence, military coups and civil wars rocked the continent. The West supplied arms to one side and the Russians gave them to the other.

While nobody paid attention, nature followed its own course and rhythm. From the early seventies onwards, year by year rainfalls steadily declined across Africa and the continent grew drier. The great famine of the mid nineteen eighties was on its way. The tipping point came in 1984/85. Prolonged and severe draught hit the continent. Worst affected was the Sahel region and Ethiopia in particular. Where a Soviet backed government attempted to hide the truth of the famine that its own brutal policies and practices had fermented.  

In Jonathan Power’s retelling the famine was the culmination of years of political upheavals, false starts and false policies. This interpretation of events has widespread backing. It was the pair of BBC journalists, Mohamed Amin and Michael Buerk, who unmasked the tragedy in newscasts and photo images and laid it bare before a shocked and uncomprehending world. None will ever know for sure how many people perished in the Ethiopian famine, by some accounts, the worst in 100 years.

The horrible images of hundreds of Ethiopian dead and dying hit the headlines and filled television screens across the world. The response from the international community was immediate and massive. A total calamity was avoided.

History will record the unprecedented coming together of nearly all of the big names in American popular music and their historic collaboration in what became known as USA for Africa. The event that produced the record braking song, we are the world, composed by Michael Jackson and Lionel Riche. It raised millions of aid dollars for the famine victims.   

Slowly in the years ahead Africa would recover and life went on. But throughout the continent, people awakened to the reality that independence had been a sham. People could see for themselves that since the days of colonial rule their condition had improved little. Now it dawned on them that if progress and development were to be made, a second liberation was needed. Democracy was essential.  

By the mid 1990s a new wave of struggle and protest had brought dozens of African countries some elements of democracy: multi parties, elections, parliaments, shared powers and in the place of the sit tight ruler, presidential term limits. Jonathan Power counts 76 African countries out of a total at the time of 148 that adopted some of these new practices. But in many of these countries the changes were cosmetic and were soon defeated as the new leaders brushed aside term limits, put an end to freedom of the press and acquired new prerogatives and entrenched themselves in power.

Africa was thrown back to the bad old days of coups and military rule. There were more sufferings. Observing the headlines and the humanitarian crisis caused by multiple civil wars raging across the continent, The Economist (in the year 2000) was moved to place Africa on its front cover under the banner: the hopeless continent. In his book Jonathan Power noted that Africa has remained the only continent not to have broken through what he calls the sound barrier of economic progress. Something several Asian countries have already achieved including tiny Vietnam.

Of late the Asian giants of China and India have dazzled the world with their runaway development and economic success. Despite recent rapid economic progress across dozens of African countries; including Nigeria, South Africa, Botswana, Ghana and Zambia, no equivalent development has occurred in Africa. What holds the Africa back?

The perennial curse of bad leadership, addicted to authoritarian rule and partial to corruption, plus the clear general lack of managerial skills across the continent, go a long way to explain the African predicament. But in a continent where mangoes and bananas produce themselves, where except for the Sahara and one or two other spots, climate is mostly benign; it is hard to understand why Jonathan Power adds poor soil and harsh climatic conditions as reasons for Africa’s backwardness. Nevertheless, Power’s opus magna, Conundrums of Humanity, with its often incisive analysis and diverse offering is worth the read.