The narrative of poverty, more than often, is synonymous with Africa and her people.
Statistically, half of the African population lives below the poverty line. As of 1970, one in 10 poor citizens in the world lived in Africa, but, astonishingly, by 2000, the number had risen to close to one in two.
It is on record that while the rest of the world’s economy grew at an annual rate of close to 2% from 1960-2002, growth performance in Africa has been dismal. From 1974 through the mid-1990s, Africa’s economic growth was negative, reaching negative 1,5% in 1990-1994 although the continent’s growth rates are now impressive.
Most of the times, Africans portray themselves as victims of forces they had little control of, finding solace in the narrative of slavery and colonialism in an attempt to exonerate themselves from blame.
No wonder, in his first trip to Africa in Ghana in 2009, United States President Obama delivered a message that many Africans would rather not hear, that is, it is Africans who need to get their governance in order, to pull themselves out of poverty for they can’t always blame the West.
As if that was not enough, the American president echoed the same sentiments on his 2013 trip when he visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
In Africa, Obama sees great economic potential, but this will remain an elusive dream which may never be fulfilled unless the continent embarks on a complete overhaul of governance culture which retards her progress.
Africa, Obama argues, does not need strongmen like President Robert Mugabe, Paul Biya of Cameron, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (Equatorial Guinea) and others, but strong institutions that guard and advance the interests of her people.
Real power in the continent needs to be vested in her people and not in individuals who in most cases are selfish, corrupt, incompetent and unaccountable to their people.
While it is an undeniable historical fact that the continent’s economic development has been impaired by slavery and colonialism, Africans are powerless to reverse these dark episodes for they can’t stop the clock, but at best, can shape the present and future.
Wasting precious time on anti-colonialism rhetoric, a tactic which has become the norm with most failing dictators, is hollow and counter-productive for Africa.
The dark past is useful as a historical record from which to learn from as Africa progresses, but not as a solace to mask current failures. Ghana became independent in 1957, the same year Malaysia got liberated from the same colonial master.
Why is it that the two countries are miles apart in terms of economic development today with the former lagging behind? South Koreans and the Chinese were at one time under Japanese colonialism, but today they have all changed their narrative as they compete in equal terms with their former colonial master.
What was so unique with African colonialism which other victims of it the world over never experienced to be where she is today as she looks more like a failed continent?
African leaders, Obama seems to imply, cannot exonerate themselves from blame for the continent’s current state of affairs as they are complicit in its plunder with the help of outsiders much to the detriment of the lives of her people who get poor and poorer.
Now it is time to change this narrative of victimhood to that of self-reflection for that is where answers for the continent’s problems lie.
The continent cannot afford to be sustained by the goodwill of the North in economic aid as it possesses vast natural resources that should uplift the lives of her people. Nigeria, for instance, is the 10th largest oil producer in the world, but is ranked number 153 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index (UNHDI).
Gabon, Africa’s third largest oil producer, with an estimated population of 1,5 million inhabitants as of 2010, is among Africa’s poorest nations. The richest 20% of the population receive over 90% of the income from oil revenue while 80% of the population lives in poverty.
These startling figures contrasts with Qatar’s, a sparsely populated Middle Eastern country of approximately 1,9 million people which has changed her fortunes overnight from being a land of camels to become one of the richest country on the planet by tapping her oil reserves for the betterment of her people.
That is the same trend with Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Africa’s dark side is reflected by Angola again whose vast oil reserves have failed to benefit the majority of the population who live on less than a dollar a day while only a minority benefit. Equatorial Guinea, in spite of its huge oil reserves, ranks number 121 out of 187 countries on the UNHDI.
Not to be outdone, Zimbabwe, in spite of its vast mineral reserves, is among the poorest nations on the planet as proceeds from mining never reach Treasury because they are siphoned by the ruling elite.
A study by the African Development Bank and the Global Financial Integrity reveals that from 1980-2009, Africa has lost US$1,2 to US$1,4 trillion in illicit financial outflows, or dirty money, like corruption, tax evasion, bribes and other criminal challenges. This figure is argued to be more than three times the total amount of foreign aid received in the same period.
From this premise, it can be argued that in actual fact, Africa does not deserve aid. The African Progress Panel gives the Democratic Republic of Congo as an example of the gravity of Africa’s self-hurt. The country is believed to harbour in excess of US$24 trillion under her soil, but is argued to be the poorest country in the world according to the UNHDI.
Given these shocking revelations, Obama’s message to Africa is that Africans must self-reflect and discover where they are going wrong instead of attributing all their misery to colonialism.
This could explain why the Obama administration has given less aid to Africa than past administrations because African leaders misuse or loot the very resources which should be exploited to uplift the livelihoods of its people.
It is the truth that can save Africa and Obama, being an African-American himself, cannot be accused of being racist for raising these pertinent issues that are vital in addressing the continent’s problems.
Positions of leadership and responsibility are intertwined, Obama seems to imply in reference to the clamour for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by African leaders.
However, these leaders seem not to be aware of the responsibilities that go with positions of power. No wonder, most African leaders attend international forums to beg for aid and not to contribute to discussions carried out there.
Wasn’t it Sadc and the African Union that blindly endorsed the July 31 sham elections in Zimbabwe?
If these leaders can’t tell the difference between day and night, what contributions are they to make at the UNSC if granted a permanent seat beside siding with Russia and China in inhibiting the flourishing of democracy in the world?
Didn’t South Africa vote as a non-permanent member of the UNSC in favour of Resolution 1973 with regard to Libya, authorising a no-fly zone only to criticise Nato intervention in the country?
Isn’t Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, still the darling of many across the continent except in Botswana and Malawi? What about President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto of Kenya, whose cases are still pending at The Hague, but are still admired by fellow African dictators in the spirit of African solidarity and brotherhood? Where is the sense of responsibility?
It would be naïve and foolish for African leaders to dismiss Obama’s criticism for the issues he raised are genuine and few outsiders would have dared to raise them for fear of being labelled “racist”. Now is the time to self-reflect for Africa and change its way of doing things.
Muchayi is a pro-democracy and political analyst who can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org