30 years of sergeants bring ruin to Africa


TOO MANY PEOPLE in Washington wish to ignore the truth about Africa, for reasons of business, solidarity, or -- this seems to be the case with the Clinton administration's pronouncements on African affairs -- because they fear that thinking gloomy thoughts makes them true.

But the truth about Africa is almost unrelievedly awful. As even the most cursory look at the economic indicators reveals, an African revival is not what lies ahead. The urgent task in Africa, all the rosy predictions of the World Bank notwithstanding, is not to engineer recovery, it is to mitigate catastrophe.

Officials at the World Bank sometimes argue that countries such as South Korea were just as badly off in the 1950s as many African states are today, but with good economic management they became prosperous. Such an argument elides the difference between the economic conditions that obtained half a century ago, when labor was in high demand and the technological skills required for average workers fairly primitive, and the economic conditions today, when there is worldwide overproduction of low-end goods, a vast surplus of labor and the need for a much more technologically proficient work force. As in the colonial period, commodities such as oil are almost the only thing Africa has to offer, and many of these are available more cheaply elsewhere.

Africa has almost nothing to offer advanced global capitalism. There are better educated and better disciplined workers willing to work for very low wages all over the world. A collapsing infrastructure makes investment in much of Africa more expensive than in many other regions, no matter how low wage scales can be forced. Political corruption and political instability further raise the costs for most corporations.

And the enormous population increase in Africa means that it is inconceivable that enough jobs can be created for all the people being born. The population of Rwanda was 1.5 million in 1940. Today, even after the genocide, it is over 7 million. The current estimate of the Nigerian population puts it at about 120 million (though census figures are notoriously unreliable). It will double in the next 30 years.

The end of the Cold War, moreover, robbed the continent of its strategic urgency, and it is too far away from the borders of the rich countries to pose a threat of mass migration, as Mexico and the Caribbean do for the U.S., and the Maghreb does for Western Europe.

Africa, in sum, offers many reasons for indifference about Africa. From human rights to the environment, from demography to infrastructure, the news from Africa could hardly be worse. It is no longer a question of the independent African states not having lived up to the expectations of their citizens. It is now a question of survival. Will large parts of sub-Saharan Africa ever exist at more than subsistence level? Will its people ever come to know anything better than Hobbesian horror?

"We have lost 30 years to the sergeants," President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, one of the few promising political leaders on the continent, has said. He is right. In an era in which the process of economic development by means of free (or freer) market activity is going well in most of the world, does anyone really care to do something for Africa?

This is not a matter of aid. Sub-Saharan Africa has received more development aid per capita than any other region of the world over the past quarter of a century. Aid programs -- most recently Boutros Boutros-Ghali's proposal for a $25 billion fund for African development -- continue to be devised. Will the new assistance be more effective in fostering prosperity than the old assistance?

To a large degree, the expansion of humanitarian aid is a concession to three notions: that Africa does not matter, and so development aid can be decreased; that Africa will be in a shambles, and so funds for disaster relief need to be increased; that Africans cannot look after themselves, and so foreign nongovernmental organizations need to take over certain basic services, whether these involve security, as the South African mercenary organization Executive Outcomes is providing in Sierra Leone, or medical care, as the American evangelical humanitarian group World Vision is providing a Mozambique.

But disaster relief is, by definition, an admission of defeat. It is in no sense a solution, as its best practitioners are the first to admit. But this, I fear, is the point: Nobody has any realistic ideas about what to do.

There is little in the present climate that the U.N. can do for Africa. The religion of development has not worked, as even most officials now reluctantly concede. Proposals still regularly issue forth, of course, ranging from U.N. trusteeships for failed states -- a solution increasingly in vogue among international relief groups -- to the massive payment of reparations by the European Union countries and the U.S., an idea floated most recently by the historian Ali Mazrui. So here we are, reduced to the serious discussion of recolonization and reparation.

As Julius Nyerere has pointed out, without the anchors of the most important African states, above all Nigeria, Zaire, Kenya and South Africa, there can be no progress on the continent. It is all very well to linger over promising developments in the Ivory Coast, or Uganda, or Ghana, but those are small places. Even if they do better than expected economically, the collapse of their huge neighbors will swamp them. If Zaire (or as it is now called, Congo) collapses, the refugees alone will undo whatever progress they have made; and the skewing of resource allocation will see to the rest. And what holds true for Zaire holds true for Nigeria.

Similarly, if the most important countries on the continent remain dictatorships, any prospect of smaller, neighboring countries remaining or becoming democratic seems far-fetched. This is one of the reasons why, to the extent that foreign governments care at all about the fate of Africa, the questions of democracy and human rights will be critical in the coming period. Just as there has never been a famine in a free society, it seems safe to say that without democracy there will never be any recovery in Africa.

The moral reason is the best reason for caring about the ruin of Africa, and it may be the only reason. If help comes to Africa, it will be offered on grounds of decency, not on grounds of strategy. This, of course, is tantamount to saying that help will not come. The world does not work that way.

David Rieff is a contributing editor of The New Republic, in which this article, in longer form, was first published.

Pub Date: 7/16/97

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