How Americans see Africa: Through their rear view mirrors

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archvies
13 September 2005

pen5My perception of American perceptions about Africa

People on the street in America, the average citizens, seem to be getting bored with news out of Africa . Some observers think the Americans have turned their collective backs on sub-Saharan Africa . As their attention move on toward other problems, they are looking at Africa in the proverbial rear view mirror of their automobiles.

It is not that people don’t want to help Africa citizens fulfill a lot of the hopes built up by promises made to them by their own political leaders and by other governments ever since the early years of their independence from colonial rule. Deep down in their hearts they do. It is a matter of burnout. Lots of funds have entered Africa over the past four decades or so, but there is little show for it. Only corruption seems to have done well in this period.

In addition to widespread government corruption at most levels and in many countries, Africa has been beset by food, health, environment and development problems in recent times that suggest that effective leadership at the top in many African countries is lacking. By leadership I do not mean in UN or in African Union deliberations or in special international activities where platitudes abound on the need for democracy or for civil society. In some countries, there are deadly internal wars, while in others there are unspeakable inhumane acts against innocent people and against humanity. Few African leaders have publicly complained about the failing of other African leaders, for example, the case of Mugabe’s behavior in Zimbabwe . Phrases like ëblood diamonds’, child armies, genocide, arrogance of power and, so forth conspire to block effective amounts of support (financial and moral) that Africa desperately needs in order to make economic development progress.

To be fair to most government and humanitarian organizations, there seems to be some emergency help for African countries following major natural disasters. We saw that, with the floods in Mozambique . Yet, international assistance (aside from South African help) did not materialize for several days and was catalyzed by the video of a pregnant woman giving birth to baby in a tree surrounded by swirling flood waters. Industrialized countries were embarrassed into getting involved.

Africa seems always to have been a victim; at first from colonial powers seeking to dominate workers and in distant places. Then came the struggle for and achievement of independence from their colonial rulers, mostly through competing hot-war revolutionary movements. That was taking place in the midst of an ideologically based Cold War between the USA on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. As a result of the Cold War, these competing African political factions had to curry the favor of the western powers or eastern ones to get arms or money. Competing groups within the same colony were sought after by the Superpowers for access to their strategic locations on the continent and for their votes in the UN General Assembly.

With the end of the Cold War, Africa became more or less neglected by the rich countries, though it still supplies natural resources to the industrial world. I argued in an editorial some years ago that Africa had apparently been triaged.

Triage refers to a battlefield policy developed in World War I. with not enough medical supplies to take care of all of the battlefield wounded, doctors had to divide the wounded into 3 categories: the walking wounded; they required no special attention and could get them selves to medical help. Their wounds were not life threatening. Another category included those whose wounds were so serious that they were likely to die on the battlefield even if given timely emergency medical assistance. Using medical supplies for them would be wasted, as they were likely to die. So the medics focused on the middle category of wounded soldiers, those who had been seriously wounded but who had a reasonable chance to survive if given medical attention immediately and in appropriate amounts.

By analogy, when the Soviet Union lost its hold on Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and broke up as a country in 1991, western countries turned their attention toward East European countries as the seriously wounded in terms of the need for aid infusion to help them to develop economically and to re-integrate them into a non-communist world. Attention and support went to Eastern European countries as they were viewed as the seriously wounded. Africa then fell into the 3 rd category. After decades of development assistance to Africa , there was little progress to show for it. Deadly internal conflicts took place in Ethiopia , Rwanda , Burundi , Mozambique , Algeria , Angola , Congo and Eritrea . Countries favored by the west, such as the Ivory Coast , Liberia , Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe each in its own way has proven to be major development disappointments. Much of that disappointment relates to failed leadership, both within the country and from the international community.

I was one of the students of Africa who was filled with so much hope for the continent in the early 1960s. It was a time of colonial wars and some very impressive pronouncements about national goals as stated by impressive noteworthy African leaders such as Nkrumah, Azikwe, Kenyatta, Keita, Ben Bella, Senghor, Banda, Adoula, Nyerere, Cabral, Mondlane and Lumumba (names that students of African politics today might not even know). There was a lot of hope not only on the continent but also in government and in academic circles. Many university professors spent their careers writing about ways to develop African polities. After 30-40 years of writing about it, many (myself included) feel saddened at the paucity of success stories.

The countries out side of Africa have meddled in Africa affairs and most recently some have fought to punish former colonies, have bargained to get cheap natural resources away from Africa, have sought to dump their unwanted waste (garbage and radioactive) on the continent, and of course there is the aftermath of the superpower conflict that African leaders had to contend with, an overly armed Africa.

Rich countries for whatever their excuses seemed to have done little to rid the continent of its genocidal, murderous or illegitimate rulers (Mengistu in Ethiopia ; Amin in Uganda ) or corrupt ones (Mobutu/Sese Seku in the Congo ; Taylor , Liberia ).

There is plenty of blame to go around within the continent and outside of it. As of now, it seems that the industrialized countries see Africa in a new way, one that is disturbing to those who care about the fate of Africans and of their hope for progress and well being. It seems that Americans and perhaps others have begun to look at Africa through the rear view mirrors in their cars Ö as they drive away.

I am not sure how this can be changed. It will take brainpower much bigger than mine to figure it out. So, here I sit wondering what went wrong. An African continent filled with independent states was not supposed to turn out the way it has, so vulnerable to natural as well as manmade disasters. The main goals of those interested in saving Africa from its corrupt leaders must be to devise a way to end these senseless internal wars, to get neighboring countries to respect the borders of their neighbors and then, only then, convince the American people to view Africa , once again, through the windshields of their autos.

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