Africa’s Uphill Struggle, A Moral Issue too Long Ignored

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Last June, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and other leaders from the G-8 group of nations proposed a new development package for Africa. Their package offered help to combat disease, poverty, and civil strife among the continent’s 800 million people.

With individual daily incomes ranging from a under one dollar (Cdn.) to a maximum of about $7 (Cdn.), Africans have little means and resources left over to combat the increasing spread of AIDS throughout their population. The result is that Africa accounts for some 70 per cent of total AIDS cases in the world today.

Moreover, in most African countries, economic growth is at a standstill, vital infrastructure is lacking or dysfunctional, and the most potentially productive sectors are vastly underdeveloped. Democracy, freedom and human rights are floundering under African rulers who seem concerned only with robbing national treasuries and diverting their peoples’ wealth into foreign personal bank accounts, until they are militarily ousted, or replaced in sham elections by yet another dictator.

Many analysts (top ranking Africans among them), are blaming Africans themselves for their lack of education, lack of health care, lack of democracy, and lack of overall human development. Blaming the victims of such widespread oppression is a strategy which is claiming more and more credibility today.

But how can the ordinary people of Africa be responsible for the settlement of debts which represent funds that never reached them in the first place, but were pocketed by corrupt rulers? And most of those debts were forced on them by the West in its own interests. The fact remains that Europe is responsible for the deterioration of social conditions in Africa, the prevalence of poverty and war, the spread of systemic corruption, and the rapidly widening economic rift between Africa’s 800 million people — nearly a fifth of the world’s population — and those of the developed world.

Cumulatively, these factors have stripped Africa of any political, strategic or economic weight in the world, reducing its role to that of a provider of raw materials, on terms set by the West. In addition, Africa is still plagued by one of the worst legacies of European colonialism –the numerous ill-defined, ill-conceived borders, which continue to be a root cause of regional wars.

The UN currently has eight peace missions operating in Africa. They include the Observer Mission in Sierra Leone, the Peace-building Support Office in Liberia, the Observer Mission in Angola, a Mission in the Central African Republic, the Political Office in Somalia, the Assistance Mission for Rwanda, and an office in Burundi — all countries ravaged by catastrophic and decimating civil wars.

Due to widespread grinding poverty, glaring socioeconomic inequalities, human rights abuses, the yawning gap between rich and poor, and continuing racial and territorial conflicts throughout the continent, Africa’s share of the world’s total trade flow is less than two per cent.

In 2001, Tanzania’s minister of foreign affairs appealed for the cancellation of all African debts, saying, “We have a serious problem: an average of 50 per cent of government revenue is spent on payment of debt and 50 per cent on salaries. In fact, in some instances, if not in most cases, people are being paid for not working, because you don’t have the capacity to give people the facilities to do their work.”

There was a brief surge of American interest in Africa during the Clinton administration. His tour of six African countries generated new optimism and many promises to a continent historically neglected by the U.S. But then American aid to Africa fell from $1,933 million in 1992 to $1,180 million in 1997. And despite Clinton’s influence, this downward trend continues unabated.

Africans realize that democracy is a difficult process requiring vigilance and constant nurture, and that it is absolutely essential to good governance. The issue for them is not whether to democratize, but how — and how soon. They long for accountable and transparent systems, political liberalization, the just rule of law, and consistent respect for human rights. But democracy alone will not be sufficient to assure Africans of long-overdue prosperity.

The European exploitation of Africa was, and still is, clearly and simply racist. It has not crossed anyone’s mind in Europe to apologize to Africa for centuries of colonial plundering. Instead, European bureaucracies seem most intent on forging exclusionary treaties to ensure that African immigrants return to their countries of origin, so as not to create racial “imbalance” in European society.

“Imbalance” aside, this is nothing less than a major moral issue and no progress can take place in Africa until it is acknowledged and corrected. Plain and simply, Europe should apologize to all of Africa for past and present colonial crimes and riches it illegally or unethically plundered. Just as importantly, Europeans must treat Africans as equals, not only for the obvious benefit of Africans, but for that of Europeans themselves.

The G-8 group should therefore initiate some new policies, and soon, on the issues of debt forgiveness, increasing ethical economic investment, and on entering into a genuine partnership with Africa.

African development, aid and restitution, combine to pose the greatest challenge faced by the western world today. Africa’s leadership has repeatedly failed to solve the continent’s grave economic, social, political and human rights problems, much of this a direct inheritance from “have” nations like those belonging to the elite G-8 group. If it fails to extend a helping hand to the Africans themselves, the West will never be able to protect itself against the dangers of a continent-sized uprising born of preventable misery.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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