My bad, actually Africa’s doing just fine

from Duff Does Africa, 8/21/08

In today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen bubbles over with optimism about Africa’s current situation and prospects. Apparently Cohen just came back from Ghana, one of a small handful of African nations with relatively decent governments, and he’s extrapolated Ghana’s modest success onto the rest of the continent.

Unfortunately, Cohen’s rosy view of Africa’s current state is deluded. “Vodaphone had bought a majority stake in Ghana Telecom for $900 million…and I’d heard much about 6 percent annual growth, spreading broadband, and new high-end cacao ventures,” Cohen reports. “I don’t think that picture is exceptional these days for Africa, where growth averaged close to 6 percent last year.” What Cohen fails to take into account is that a lot of that 6% growth is fueled by opportunistic Chinese and Russian companies who strip mine and destroy the local environment, or companies like Firestone, which has been operating a virtual slave labor camp in Liberia. Moreover, no matter where the cash flow comes from, the amount that touches Africa’s poorest citizens amounts to less than a trickle. Most of Africa’s pseudo-democracies still operate on old patronage networks, in which profits go to friends and political networks, not roads and schools.

Cohen claims that “Africans care about democracy” now. But that hasn’t halted rampant electoral intimidation and fraud, not just in Zimbabwe but in Angola, NIgeria, and Ethiopia, to name a few. Cohen does recognize that there are still some dictators in Africa—he mentions Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar Bongo of Gabon. But he leaves out Paul Biya of Cameroon, Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, the genocidal Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, and numerous lesser-known brutes. These dictators aren’t going away just because Africans suddenly have an abstract appreciation for democracy. They’re violently clinging to power.

If Cohen counted the number of African countries with complete political freedom on one hand, he wouldn’t need all his fingers. And while he celebrates the end of authoritarianism in Africa, China and Russia continue to sell weapons to dictators and veto U.N. sanctions (Sudan and Zimbabwe), the U.S. continues to prop up criminals in exchange for their oil (Equatorial Guinea), and we all remain part of the problem rather than the solution.

But Cohen has yet another reason to trumpet the magical rise of Africa. “Just watch its agriculture, which is about to boom,” he claims. Let’s momentarily ignore the very real chance that global warming will bring increasing desertification to Africa and cripple its agricultural capabilities. Even if Africa could fully exploit all its fertile soil, in what market would its agriculture boom? Not one in which America and Europe are intent on subsidizing their own farmers just enough to keep Africa from ever competing in the agricultural export market.

Cohen’s overall point is that any encouraging news that emerges from Africa shouldn’t be hidden, and I agree. Giving more press to African success stories would provide models to emulate, and it could help Western aid focus its resources on the governments, organizations, and individuals that deserve them. But if we imagine that the few improvements we’ve seen so far signify an inevitable “rise of Africa,” we merely give ourselves an excuse to be complacent. Industrialized nations need to remain vigilant, make responsible investments and diplomatic choices, and seek out and support Africans in the public and private sector with the commitment and ingenuity to bring about real progress.

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