hopeShould we despair over Africa?

In March 2004, Nicholas Kristof, the noted columnist for the New York Times declared in frustration,  “Africa is a mess. It is the only continent that has gotten poorer over the last four decades and its  famous for civil wars, genocide and mindboggling corruption. Is there any hope for Africa?” Kristof was commiserating over the fate of Chad, at the time the “the site of Africa’s latest heartbreak.”

In March 2014, just a hop and a skip on Chad’s southern border is the Central African Republic (CAR), the site of Africa’s latest heartbreak. Chad 2004 is CAR 2014. For the past year, the people of CAR have been facing a nightmare of unspeakable horror. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was so disheartened by the ongoing “ethno-religious cleansing” in CAR that he recently declared, “The international community failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago… And we are at risk of not doing enough for the people of the CAR today… Ethno-religious cleansing is a reality. Most members of the Muslim minority have fled. We cannot just continue to say ‘never again’. This, we have said so many times…” A year ago, in the town of Yaloke, less than 150 miles from CAR’s capital Bangui, there were an estimated 30,000 Muslims with 8 mosques. Today, according to Human Rights Watch, there are fewer than 500 Muslims and one mosque left.  Is there any hope for (Central) Africa?

In March 2014, just a hop and a skip on Central African Republic’s eastern border is the world’s newest country of South Sudan, which is in the throes of communal warfare.  The conflict that erupted four months ago in South Sudan when President Salva Kir dismissed his vice president Riek Machar and accused him of treason has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and displacement of one million, a fifth of which are refugees in neighboring countries. UNICEF reports that among the displaced population nearly 380,000 are children.

In April 2014, according to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), a massacre occurred in Bentiu in the north of the country when  “the anti-government [Machar’s] forces entered the mosque, separated individuals of certain nationalities and ethnic groups and escorted them to safety, while the others were killed. More than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded. At the Catholic church, SPLA in Opposition soldiers similarly asked civilians who had taken refuge there to identify their ethnic origins and nationalities and proceeded to target and kill several individuals.”  UNMISS also reported that some rebels took to local radio to “broadcast hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu, and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.”

In April 1994, Hutu extremists who opposed a 1993 ceasefire agreement for power sharing between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda launched their “final war” to “exterminate the [Tutsi] cockroaches.’ The “akazu” extremists set up their own radio station (Radio Mille Collines) and broadcast hate messages and read out the names of people to be killed and directed militias known as the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi to commit atrocities. Nearly a million Rwandans died in that genocide.

Is there hope for “Hopeless Africa”? Is hype hope in Africa?

In 2007, Kristof got a partial answer to his question. Maybe there is hope for Africa. He wrote, “when African countries have enjoyed stability and sound policies, they have often thrived. Indeed, the fastest-growing country in the world from 1960 to 2001 was Botswana (South Korea was second, and Singapore and China tied for third). More and more African countries are now following the Botswana model of welcoming investors and obeying markets. Aside from Rwanda, countries like Mozambique, Benin, Tanzania, Liberia and Mauritius are among those trying to build a future on trade more than aid.”

The so-called African leaders have also been wind bagging about an “African Renaissance”, the “African Century”, the “Dawn of Africa”, and “Africa Rising” to panhandle the West and squeeze some cold hard cash from the multilateral lending institutions. (The renowned (French) Senegalese scholar and academic Cheikh Anta Diop was the first to talk and write about an  “African Renaissance”, “rising Africa”, etc.,  in a series of essays back in 1946, but today’s Africa’s kleptocratic leaders have appropriated his ideas without even giving lip service credit to Diop.) Some media commentators have even suggested that the emerging economic powerhouses of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) may soon have to admit Africa and become BRICA.

In 2008, The Economist magazine gave lip service to the possibility of hope for Africa. “Despite the persistence of Africa’s natural and man-made horrors, the latest trend is cheeringly positive,” proclaimed The Economist. However, in 2000, The Economist had commiserated in despair with the headline, “Hopeless Africa?” “Since January, Mozambique and Madagascar have been deluged by floods, famine has started to reappear in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe has succumbed to government-sponsored thuggery, and poverty and pestilence continue unabated. Most seriously, wars still rage from north to south and east to west… These acts are not exclusively African—brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere—but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them. “In 2013, The Economist declared that much of Africa is out of the woods and sought to “paint a picture at odds with Western images of Africa. War, famine and dictators have become rarer. People still struggle to make ends meet, just as they do in China and India. They don’t always have enough to eat, they may lack education, they despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. But most Africans no longer fear a violent or premature end and can hope to see their children do well…” Does 2014 mark the end of hope and the beginning of a new era of despair in Africa? 

Hope’s on the ropes in 2014 Africa  

In March 2011, I wrote a commentary about the referendum and anticipated creation of South Sudan later that year in a piece entitled, “Referendum for Sudan, Requiem for Africa.” I am heartbroken by the reality and possibility of secession anywhere in Africa. I felt at the time, “It is the best of times in the Sudan. It is the worst of times in the Sudan. It is the happiest day in the Sudan. It is the saddest day in the Sudan. It is referendum for the Sudan. It is requiem for Africa.” When African countries unyoked themselves from colonialism in the 1960s, their future seemed bright and limitless. Independence leaders thought in terms of Pan-Africanism and the eventual political and economic unification of Africans. They aspired to attract Africans in the Diaspora into an ever expanding “global African community”. Pan-Africanism represented a return to African values and traditions in the struggle against neo-colonialism, imperialism, racism and the rest of it. Its core value was the unity of all African peoples.

Above all, the founding fathers of post-independence Africa all believed in the dream of African unity, not merely emancipation from colonial misrule. They understood the enormous challenges the continent faced, but they were undeterred in the pursuit of a more perfect union among African countries. Ethiopia’s H.I.M. Haile Selassie, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and others were all declared Pan-Africanists.

On the occasion of the establishment of the permanent headquarters of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie made the most compelling case for African unity: “We look to the vision of an Africa not merely free but united… We know that there are differences among us. Africans enjoy different cultures, distinctive values, special attributes. But we also know that unity can be and has been attained among men of the most disparate origins, that differences of race, of religion, of culture, of tradition, are no insuperable obstacle to the coming together of peoples. History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity…”

Pan-Africanism is dead. The pursuit of African unity has proven to be more elusive than the quest for the Holy Grail.  African unity today is African political fragmentation as the continent heaves under seismic ethnic fissures. Tribalism and ethno-nationalism are the “neo-ideologies” sweeping over Africa. Africa’s thug-tators are furiously beating the drums of ethno-nationalism and blowing the horns of religious discord all over the continent just to cling to power and corruptly enrich themselves and their cronies.  In many parts of Africa today pride in “ethnic identity”, “ethnic purity,” “ethnic homelands”, ethnic cleansing and tribal chauvinism have become fashionable. In Ethiopia, tribal politics has been repackaged in a fancy wrapper called “ethnic federalism” and used to segregate the Ethiopian people by ethno-tribal and linguistic classification in grotesque regional political units called “kilils” (reservations) or glorified apartheid-style Bantustans or tribal homelands. Nigeria has been immersed in ongoing conflict between “original inhabitants (indigenes)”  and “settlers”  since that country  took a turn to the “democratic path” in 1999. Discrimination and violence against “Nigerian settlers” in their own country has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  In Ivory Coast, an ideological war was waged over “Ivoirite” (“Ivorian-ness”) and its proponents argued that the country’s problems are rooted in the contamination of genuine Ivorian identity by outsiders who have been allowed to freely immigrate into the country. The Red Horseman of Tribalism and Ethnic Chavinism haunts the African continent today.

The audacity of hope and rapacity of despair in Africa

Does Africa’s destiny hang in the balance between the audacity of hope and the rapacity of despair? Is Africa condemned to a future of civil wars, genocides and crimes against humanity? Does Africa’s hope lie in strings attached multilateral loans and aid, colossal debts and predatory foreign investors? Is Africa doomed to become the permanent object of charity, sympathy and pity for the rest of the world? Is Africa floating on a sea of hope or drowning in an ocean of despair? Is it true what they say about Africa that though “brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere—but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.” Is there something buried deeply in the African ethos (character), logos (logic of the African mind), pathos (spirit/soul) and bathos (African narrative of the trivial into the sublime) that makes Africans extremely susceptible to the triple deadly cancers of brutality, despotism and corruption? Is Africa the infernal stage of Dante’s “divine comedy”?: “Abandon all hope, you who enter [live] here [in Africa].”

On the road to hope

Nelson Mandela dreamt that to reach his “beautiful South Africa”, his people must follow “two roads  named Goodness and Forgiveness.” To reach the “Beautiful Africa”, I believe Africans must take long walks on the twisting unmarked trails and dirt paths of truth and reconciliation before getting onto the highways, expressways and freeways of hope. If “all roads lead to Rome”, I believe only three arterial roads lead Africans to the heart of  “Beautiful Africa.” I would call the roads Rule of Law, Respect for Human Rights and Accountability. It is the rule of law that will shield the people from the corruption and abuse of predatory thugs palming themselves off as “leaders”.  When corrupt and criminal African leaders respect the human rights of their people, wars, civil strife and genocides will come to an end. When African leaders and institutions are held accountable to the people in a free and fair election and before an independent judiciary, then governments will fear the people.

Despair or repair Africa

There are some who say Africa is the Humpty Dumpty of the world and that neither the king’s men nor horses could put her back together. In 1963, in his inaugural speech at the Organization of African Unity, H.I.M. Haile Selassie said, “Today, Africa has emerged from this dark passage [of colonialism]. Our Armageddon is past.” Africa may have “emerged from the dark passage of colonialism”, but neocolonialism and globalization still cast long dark shadows of over Africa. Is Africa’s “Armageddon past”? Is Africa’s apocalypse now?  Behold South Sudan, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia…!

In 1963, in a speech given at the United Nations, H.I.M. Haile Selassie, answered the question “Is there hope for Africa?” He said there will be only war, and no hope for Africa and the world, “…until the philosophy which holds one race [tribe, ethnicity, religion, language, region] superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned: That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin [tribe, ethnicity, religion, language, region] is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race [tribe, ethnicity, religion, language, region]; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained;… Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace [or have hope]…” [Brackets added.]

Such were the prophetic words of the man who single handedly made possible the establishment of the Organization of African Unity, the very first continental organization dedicated to the pursuit of a more perfect union among Africans. It is a tragic irony and a low down shame that H.I.M. Haile Selassie, one of the greatest African and world leaders of his time,  is denied the simple dignity of a memorial statute on the grounds of the African Union in Ethiopia because the ruling regime in Ethiopia continues to rabidly oppose erection of any symbol that honors him.

My answer to the question, “Is there hope for Africa?” is a simple one. Africa is blessed with an abundance of hope and its youth are the fountainhead of Africa’s hope. As I have written before, Africa is a continent of “Afr-I-Cans” and “Afr-I-Cannots”. Africa is a continent of Cheetahs (the youth, the movers and shakers), and Hippos (the old generation, who sit on their behinds and complain) as George Ayittey likes to say. The Cheetahs spring with hope. The Hippos struggle on the rope. The “Hippo Generation” leaders and elites of post-independence Africa remain as “unscrupulous, impulsive and corrupt” as ever. “Their cupidity and short-sightedness has blighted the fortunes of post-colonial Africa for several decades.” The Cheetah generation of today is on the move and they are  “aggressively seizing back control of their continent and leading the African people back on the journey to socio-economic redemption,” declared Ayittey. Africa’s hope is not reflected in shiny glass edifices of corruption built by thug-tators or in the blings that adorn the necks of crony capitalists.

For those who want an answer to the question, “Is there hope for Africa?”, I say look into the eyes of Africa’s young people ; probe their minds and listen to their heartbeats. They are Africa’s only hope. It is on the wings of their dreams that Africa will one day soar above ethnic divisions, religious dissensions and linguistic confusion. So I say to “Africa’s hopes” in the poetic words of Langston Hughes,  “Hold fast to dreams,/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird,/That cannot fly.” Or soar!

As Africa’s youth dream of the “Beautiful Africa” of tomorrow, I shall rhapsodically cherish my own pipe dreams (daydreams). I have a pipe dream that one day the benighted leaders of Africa will be enlightened; the rule of men in Africa will one day give way to the rule of law; multiparty democracies in Africa will one day replace single party thugogracies; transparency and accountability will one day root out venality in Africa; political brinksmanship and gamesmanship in Africa will one day be transformed into multiethnic, interdenominational and interreligious partnership; dictatorship will one day be consigned to the dustbin of history by African statesmanship.

I have a pipe dream (daydream) that one day the African Union will live out the true meaning of its creed that it “shall promote and protect human rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.”  I have a pipe dream that useless organizations such as the Pan-African Parliament, the Economic, Social and Cultural Council, the Peace and Security Council, the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism, among others,  will one day magically transform themselves into useful organizations to serve the people of Africa. I have a pipe dream that  the African Court on Human and People’s Rights will one day become a reality.

Above all, I have a pipe dream that one day in Africa government wrongs will be redressed by human rights; and that African governments will fear their people and the people will forever  cast off their fear of their governments. Such are the pipe dreams (daydreams) of a utopian Ethiopian for Africa.

Hope is for the hopeful, not the hopeless. “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” J.R.R. Tolkien

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic http://ethioforum.org/?cat=24