Poignancy beats pauperism
Clinton's seven-nation African tour is designed to focus attention on Africa's big change of fortunes, notes Gamal Nkrumah
After the storm comes a hard climb. United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton understands that Africa's is an upbeat panorama of radical political reforms and robust economic development. Clinton crisscrossed the continent taking it all in. After decades of economic stagnation, ruinous civil wars and attendant political instability and social unrest, African governments have now emerged as the world's most aggressive reformers. Grave disparities of income, and a growing inequality gap as well as discrepancies between different African governments and countries plague the continent and put a question mark on its progress.
Indeed, it is for this particular reason that US President Barack Obama singled out Ghana to showcase the West African nation's successful reforms. Ghana, like the rest of the continent faces crippling challenges of poverty, disease, ignorance and unemployment. Yet, the country has proven that it is ready to confront in an especially courageous fashion its domestic economic pressures. It has bravely overcome its own political constraints and to the West's delight opened up its economy, reduced taxation and other barriers to trade.
Let there be no mistake, is this not precisely what the 40-nation Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) preferential trade pact with the US is all about? AGOA has its critics in Africa and abroad, and rightly so. However, suffice it to say that Clinton's seven-nation African tour comes less than a month after Obama's historic visit to Ghana. My point is that Clinton's African tour spotlights the reality that the international media's portrayal of Africa as a continent dogged by calamities and economic and social woes is in her own words "stale, outdated and wrong". Africa is the continent of the future, and a glorious one at that.
Underpinning much of what is happening in Africa is the new importance the continent's vast mineral resources, energy and agricultural potential is assuming in light of the growth of trade between booming Asian industrial giants and the lucrative markets of the Americas, the Arab world and Europe. The world is rediscovering the golden opportunities Africa offers, and the US is leading the way.
African economies are growing at an average that is among the fastest in the world. "We cannot seem to get past the idea that the continent has enormous potential for progress," Clinton concluded. Some of the African countries she visited have some of the world's fastest growing economies. Angola, war-torn barely a decade ago, is fast becoming the economic powerhouse of central Africa, strategically located at the crossroads between Brazil (a fellow lusophone nation) across the Atlantic Ocean and other southern and landlocked central African countries to its east. Angola is awash with oil, natural gas and it is rich in strategic minerals, including uranium. Small wonder then that Clinton had to stopover in Angola a country that is among the main suppliers of oil to the US.
Has Africa been learning the right lessons? Take the Angolan example again. Politicians in the Angolan capital Luanda understand that political instability could scupper plans for the promotion of prosperity in a country with great economic potential. Luanda's construction boom is a sign of the city's newfound sophistication. The skyscrapers of and palatial villas of Luanda's fast changing skyline with its enchanting waterfront cannot hide the fact that the gap between rich and poor in Angola is growing faster. This is a potential time- bomb.
The sparkling sports cars and other symbols of ostentatious wealth only highlight the abject poverty, destitution and misery of the impoverished majority of Angolans. Indeed, Luanda's growing slums are also an indication of the constraints against which Angola's rapid capitalist development is pushing. Ironic, for Angola has since its independence from Portugal in 1975 been governed by the once avowedly Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (better known by its Portuguese acronym MPLA). Portugal's 1974 Carnation Revolution spelt the demise of the Portuguese Empire in Africa. But even as colonialism unceremoniously ended, the Angolan civil war ensued. The MPLA supported by Cuba and the former Soviet Union adopted Marxism-Leninism as its official ideology and became embroiled in a deadly war with its arch- rival the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola backed by apartheid South Africa and the US.
The Angolan civil war ended abruptly in 2002 when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in battle and his movement soon abandoned the armed struggle against the MPLA. Multi-party democracy was instituted and the ruling MPLA holds 191 seats out of the 220 seats in the Angolan parliament that it won in a landslide victory at the 2008 parliamentary poll. UNITA tenaciously hangs on to the paltry 16 seats in parliament. Clinton expressed reservations about Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos who has been in power since he succeeded Angola's first president the poet and legendary freedom fighter Agustinho Neto in 1979. The Angolans politely advised Clinton to mind her own business.
Take another example: South Africa. Clinton described her meeting with the country's first post-apartheid president, the Nobel peace prize winner Nelson Mandela as "inspirational". Her 45-minute meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma underpinned the fact that Africa has become a key foreign policy priority for the Obama administration. Zuma, a populist leader who champions the cause of the poor, does not always see eye to eye with Washington and its Western allies. And yet, he is willing to talk -- frankly and openly. Obama and Clinton, too, have long re-iterated their pledge to listen and learn.
Africa is enjoying being at the centre of world attention. Africans are keen, nevertheless, to keep a stake in their emerging economies. For more than five centuries, the economic activity and the dividends thereof have been in foreign hands. And today, in spite of the newfound democracy and economic dynamism, the fabulous wealth generated from the economic boom has failed to filter down to the continent's poor.
The point was driven poignantly home during the fourth leg of Clinton's African tour. After meeting with Congolese Prime Minister Adolphe Muziti in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, Clinton declared that the real reason behind conflicts in Africa is the scramble for the continent's riches. "What are the conflicts about," she asked rhetorically. "It is because there are mines in eastern Congo that produce minerals that go into our cell phones and other electronics. There is a lot of money being made, but it sure isn't helping the people of Congo."
Clinton hit the nail on the head. The war in eastern Congo is essentially about uranium and that magical component of the mobile phone called coltan, an African slang word for tantalum, a rare mineral used in the manufacturing of consumer electronics. People the world over have heard of "blood diamonds" the cause of a brutal civil war in the West African nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia that is now, thankfully, over. Yet nothing is said or done about the "conflict coltan" that has claimed the lives of three million people in eastern Congo and displaced many millions more. The tragic irony, as Clinton pointed out, is that even as Congolese warlords, foreign transnational corporations and their local cohorts are making billions of dollars by illegal profiteering from trade in the conflict minerals of eastern Congo, the 70 million Congolese are growing poorer and more ravaged by war.
The war in eastern Congo is the deadliest conflict since World War II. Gold, cobalt, tantalite and cassiterite used in the manufacturing of consumer electronics are the primary cause of the conflict in eastern Congo. The scramble for tantalum (so-called coltan) used to store electricity in capacitators in iPods, digital cameras and mobile phones are the source of the deadly conflict. Tungsten, too, used to make the mobile phone and Blackberry vibrate, is another culprit. Not the mineral per se, but the squabbles resulting from the control of these strategic minerals so essential for our blessed Age of Information and telecommunications.
Like Clinton told her Congolese hosts, the incredible natural wealth of the Congo is the cause of the unimaginable suffering of the Congolese people. Clinton did not come to Africa to lecture, but she obviously did listen and do her homework.
Africans must not be doomed to remain victims, and to repeat the deadly and devastating mistakes of history. Clinton touched on another prickly subject when she urged the respect for women's rights. She remarked that the sexual violence in the Congo is untenable. "It is the worst example of man's inhumanity to women," she explained. An estimated 3,500 women have been systematically raped in eastern Congo so far this year alone. It is to spotlight this humanitarian catastrophe that she visited the Heal Africa Hospital for victims of sexual violence, mostly women and children. Clinton herself was affronted by a Congolese misogynist, a male student, who asked her what her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, thought about "My husband is not the secretary of state, I am," fumed an outraged Hilary.
In Goma, the eastern Congolese metropolis, and scene of indescribable violence clashes in the past Clinton met with Congo's President Laurant Kabila. The outcry is growing from human rights groups about the deplorable human rights conditions in Kabila's country, and especially in his strongholds in eastern Congo. International pressure is mounting to improve conditions, even though the international rights groups remain sceptical about the Congolese government's professed determination to stamp out social injustice. As their patience wears thin, the Congolese people, inevitably resort to revolutionary violence and the armed struggle. Tackling African conflicts and concerns is a delicate balancing act, and Clinton against all odds appears to have earned the respect of her African hosts.
And, no more so than in Kenya -- the birthplace of President Obama's own father -- where she openly reprimanded her hosts on their tottering democracy and urged them to uphold pluralistic multi-party democracy in a peaceful manner and without resort to violence to meet political ends. In Kenya, she met with Somali President Sheikh Sherif Sheikh Ahmed who described the meeting as "a golden chance for the Somali people and government. It signals how the Obama administration and the international community are willing to support Somalia," he concluded.
No one has ever suggested that Hillary Clinton is anything but smart. And, nothing could be smarter than for her to smarten up her approach to Africa, even though this week's tour is a perfect start.