Sub-Saharan Africa


Africa has an image problem.  For decades, the world has labeled Africa in absolutes.  And more often than not, these absolutes rarely are positive.  Sure, sometimes a Westerner might note Africa’s potential or its scenery, its wildlife, its cultures or its seemingly limitless natural resources, but the more likely narrative pegs Africa as the land of famine or bloodshed or tribal warfare or AIDS or drought or malaria or dictators or child soldiers or terrorists or infant mortality or any of the other handpicked maladies that pop up in a media headline every month or two.

So which Africa is the most accurate?

Is it the land of vibrancy, hope and potential?  Or is it the land of death and despair?

At the flip of the millennium, it was the latter.  In 2000, The Economist summarized the stereotype so many had blindly accepted after four decades of negative press - “The new millennium has brought more disaster than hope to Africa.  Worse, the few candles of hope are flickering weakly.”  

Flash forward eight years, and investors and world leaders across the globe started referring to the continent as “Africa Rising,” no longer a pit of hopelessness, but instead a symbol of growth and rejuvenation.  Africa became the continent of possibilities.

What happened to the story?  Did an entire continent really flip itself in less than a decade?  Was The Economist summary just a bit too cynical?  And is “Africa Rising” too simplistically optimistic?  

Yes and yes.

Today, Africa is both. It all depends on which chunk of real estate you decide to focus your lens.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about when we speak of Africa.  When people talk about Africa and Africans, they’re usually referring to the region and the people below the Muslim countries of North Africa - Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Western Sahara.  These seven North African countries have more in common with the Middle East and Dar al Islam than they do with the rest of the continent, so for this chapter we’re not going to talk about them.

Nope.  This chapter deals with the region called Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the area not-so-ironically located below the Sahara Desert that includes 47 countries, including Nigeria, Somalia, Rwanda, Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and South Africa.  From here, instead of choosing the more cumbersome “Sub-Saharan Africa” or the rarely-used “SSA,” I’m just going to keep it simple and use the term “Africa.”  For some of you, this is the black Africa of your stereotypes (though your oversimplification ignores the tens of millions of Europeans and Asians that currently call Africa home).

And this Africa is nearly impossible to generalize.  How can you possibly tell a singular narrative that accurately reflects the individual experiences of over 962 million people?

Do you talk about the 16,000 millionaires or the 600 million people that live on less than a dollar a day?  Do you mention the $3.3 billion film industry in Nigeria (Nollywood) or the 700 million people that don’t have access to electricity?  Do you acclaim the software innovations of Kenya’s Silicon Savannah or decry the fact that 157 million people can’t find clean water?  Do you champion the incredible growth of the recent decade that has seen Malaria deaths down 30%, HIV deaths down 74% and wages increase 30%?  Or do you lament that the average life expectancy is 46 years (32 years less than the Western world) and that literacy rates hover below 70% (with South Sudan having the lowest literacy rate in the world at 27%)?  

If you want to be accurate, you have to admit to it all - both the glittering examples of progress and the painful reminders of colonial subjugation.   

Yeah, yeah...you get it.  Africa is diverse.  It’s impossible to stereotype.  The region lives on the extremes.  

So why do the generalizations persist?  For a few reasons...

First, the Western media has spent the last century perpetuating a White Man’s Burden narrative where it was believed that God had ordained all white peoples with a superior intellect, culture and civilization, and because of this apparent superiority, is was their moral responsibility to help out the poor, pitiful, childlike, uncivilized hordes of the non-white world.  This not-so-subtle racist justification persisted throughout European imperialism and into the subsequent independence movements of the late 20th century.  Because all of us alive today are less than 120 years old, we don’t know of a world where the non-white peoples of the world were actually the dominant societies.  And even as more and more evidence emerges to show the equality of all races and the dynamism from peoples from all corners of the globe, the white=good, colored=bad story lazily persists.  This happens because...

Second, once people have a biased perception of a topic, a region or a group of people, they automatically believe any new evidence that supports this biased perception and discount all contradictory details.  Psychologists call this “Selective Exposure Theory” or “Confirmation Bias.”  Think of the sports fan who deliriously boos the visiting star athlete accused of beating his wife or ingesting a wee bit of steroids.  Should this same star be traded to their hometown team, all will be forgiven.  The athlete didn’t change.  The history didn’t change.  But for the fan, anything connected to a rival team is bad and anything connected to their own team is good.  This selective usage of evidence leads religious zealots to believe all other faiths are evil, leads political party extremists to conveniently disregard all attacks on their leaders while passively believing all criticism of the opponent’s figureheads and it leads entire races and peoples to automatically assume other races are inferior or superior, regardless of new evidence.  This commitment to an ignorant view, coupled with generations of negative press make it almost impossible for non-Africans to view Africans in a positive light.  This tragedy is made worse because...

Third, people don’t know geography.  They don’t understand how events that occur in one place did not actually occur in another.  In 2014, the world learned that Ebola was spreading across Africa and that it would soon be crossing the shores to their distant land.  25,000 cases of Ebola were diagnosed in the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.  Within months, spooked tourists and businessmen from Asia to North America were cancelling their flights to locales across Africa, even as far away as South Africa, wiping out an estimated $3.6 billion in revenue.  How ludicrous was this paranoia?  Sierra Leone and South Africa are 3,536 miles away from each other.  This is about the same distance as New York City to Peru.  So, if some tourists visiting Machu Picchu came down with an unknown virus that killed them in three days, would trips to the Statue of Liberty be impacted?  Of course not.  People have no problem recognizing geographic differences between their own countries and distant neighbors, but their brains struggle a bit to attribute these same differences to two countries not related to their own.  But this isn’t even the most prominent reason why Africa continues to get a bad rap.  That PR problem is due mostly to…

Fourth, the media loves stories of death and despair.  The darker the story, the more newspapers get sold, the more websites get visited, the more advertising dollars can be siphoned.  Nobody wants to read stories of success.  Nobody wants to read about the boring daily lives of people from far off lands.  So when something horrific happens somewhere in Africa, you better believe a reporter will throw it onto the web.  And once it’s on the web, the world will come across it in their newsfeed and automatically assume this one isolated fact represents the behaviors of an entire continent.  In 2016, Kenyan Jackline Mwende’s husband cut off her hands with a machete because she never got pregnant (which was later scientifically proven to be caused by the husband’s infertility).  The CNN story broke in August and this event somehow exemplified the barbarism of African people, the horrific level of domestic violence in African homes and the utter ignorance of a population to even understand the basics of how humans reproduce.  But what if this was just an isolated incident?  In 2015, an Arizona man, after getting high off of marijuana and Spice, cut off his wife’s head, cut off his dogs’ heads and then surrendered to the police.  Did this incident show that Americans have a drug problem, that marriages are stricken with radical violence and that animal cruelty is at an all-time high?  Uh no...that Arizona guy was just a nutter.  But because of psychological realities and the media’s demand for horrific stories, Africa can’t fully escape their negative perception.  Another problem with reporting is that…

Fifth, reporters that send their stories to press don’t always have the whole story.  Due to safety and financial realities, the best way to get to a story is to attach yourself to an NGO charged with bringing relief, reform or recovery to an area of Africa in despair.  Because this arrangement is the most logistically realistic method of seeing Africa (a continent that can fit the richest ten countries within its borders), too often the only areas visited are those in the utmost despair.  For the areas they don’t see or can’t see, they simply generalize.  But just like in America where the only way you see a town is if you get off the highway and start exploring, the only way a reporter can truly “see” Africa is to get away from the charity and aid centers and walk the same streets Africans walk every day.  This rarely happens, so the stories we read are almost always invariably skewed towards the tales of misery and gloom.

So now that you know a little about why we generalize and now that you know the inaccuracy and futility of making such generalizations…

Let me go ahead and generalize.

Just because it’s impossible to tell every African’s story doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for some regional patterns, while also giving credit to those nations that have found ways to challenge and transcend the oftentimes maddening and demoralizing themes.

The number one theme that defines all of Africa is that each nation is at a different phase of European decolonization.  Africa is finally becoming truly independent, not just in title but in practice.  Back in 1914, the entire continent (save for Liberia and Ethiopia) was engineered and controlled by one of the European powers - Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Belgium.  After World War II, European-led empires around the world started to dissolve and by the 1970s, almost all of Africa was technically independent.  Unfortunately, because for almost a century the European powers had created economies and systems built primarily to benefit their colonial lords, these freshly-independent nations were ill-equipped to create worlds where their citizens had jobs, where their different ethnicities lived in harmony and where the government protected everyone equitably.  Instead of flourishing in the 1970s and 1980s, Africa fell into radical despair, with a few isolated dictators making billions exporting resources to foreign countries and stealing from their own citizens, while the vast majority were ignored and left to live and die a diseased, uneducated, oftentimes hopeless life.  By 1990, almost all African nations had survived transfers of power from one military dictator to the next, with each violent succession leading to more deaths and displacement.

Not all Africans equally felt the symptoms of this postcolonial infection.  For those hundreds of millions living on subsistence agriculture in rural areas, much of life revolved around family and community and the positive and negative ebb and flow of life mirrored by farmers throughout human history.  But by the end of the 20th century, as the world became more globalized, as droughts, displacement and the spoils of capitalism made it more difficult to survive in the rural areas, millions of families left the countryside, moving to urban areas hoping to ensure a better life for future generations.

It was this world of radical urbanization and unsteady decolonization that fostered so many stories of poverty, violence and ineptitude.

The first place Africans and the world looked to solving these problems was their governments.  Today, the issue isn’t whether or not African nations are democracies.  They are (53 of 54 African nations claim to be republics – only Swaziland is still ruled by a king.)  It’s not that they don’t hold regular elections.  They do (16 were held in 2016).  And it’s not that they haven’t written constitutions.  They almost all have.

Democracy exists in Africa. 

But so do kleptocrats, so do the autocratic strongmen who can rise to power and undo all the societal, economic and political advancements.  Unique to Africa is the institutionalized ineptitude of its systems.  Unlike stable democracies where one bad leader can’t bring down the nation, in Africa, one leader can be the difference between prosperity and misery.  Established democracies create trusted, efficient systems, where they are governments of laws and not governments of men.  Look at the US election of 2016.  Many pondered the damage an unqualified, bombastic Donald Trump could do to America.  Would his eventual election signal the end of America?

No chance.  Trump can’t bring down America.  Obama didn’t.  The Bushes didn’t.  Mr. Clinton didn’t. In any given year, regardless whom the U.S. elects as its chief executive, the country still has a legislative branch that makes the laws, a judicial branch that judges the legality of the laws and hundreds of thousands of state and local government offices that ensure their communities work smoothly and fairly. 

No matter the rhetoric, the threats or the promises of presidential candidates, in established democratic countries like the United States, one man does not determine the fate of the nation.

In Africa, it’s different.  Their governmental systems are weak, unreliable, untrusted and oftentimes corrupt.  Part of the responsibility for this condition rests with the legacy of European imperialism.

European colonial powers set the conditions for weak central governments that would be unable to effectively rule their constituencies.  They didn’t want the Africans to be able to run themselves.  European survival required they promote a method of divide and conquer to intensify ethnic tensions and ensure their authority.  In each colonial holding, European leaders chose, sometimes arbitrarily, the ethnic group that would have access to the most prestigious, most powerful and most lucrative professions.  These decisions alone intensified ethnic division, but whenever potential indigenous threats emerged, Europeans would lean not so much on their own military superiority to ease the threat, but on alliances with rival clans.  Law didn’t rule the land, but instead a carrot and stick system of rewards and punishments where groups that supported the European leaders received the best opportunities, and groups that challenged authority were duly punished.

All European colonial powers were guilty, but none more than King Leopold and his Belgian rule of the Congo.  To control an area about the size of Europe, the Belgians enslaved the Congolese into forced labor camps, starved and whipped them into submission and even selectively cut off the limbs of children to keep parents working.  In less than a few decades, over ten million Congolese died at the hands of Belgian forces.  Although Belgium’s example was the extreme, all across Africa, Europeans relied not so much on laws but on greed and fear.

For those chosen local ethnic groups put in positions of power, few were ever educated in the Western democratic tradition that became prominent in the 20th century.  Whereas leaders of Southeast and South Asian colonies were often schooled in European universities (like Mahatma Gandhi of India, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore), rarely would an African leader benefit from the social democratic tradition of Europe.  When independence movements eventually materialized, almost every African nation was an economically-weakened, socially-fractious, politically-fragile grouping of peoples, speaking dozens (if not hundreds) of different languages, all thrown together in these political entities called countries, with arbitrary boundaries chosen almost always to benefit European needs, rarely taking into account regional realities.

Though Europe clearly played a predominant role in Africa’s modern identity, the Africans themselves (primarily the leaders who inherited and then plundered their country’s coffers) must be held accountable for the hopeless, wretched Africa that enters the 21st century. 

If you were going to point fingers at one group for Africa’s squalid state, you need look no further than the generation of kleptocrats who seized power in the decades after World War II, only to leave behind a legacy of personal enrichment and domestic neglect.  If a kleptomaniac steals from unassuming peddlers, a kleptocrat steals from entire societies at a seemingly unfathomable scale.  Leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Sani Abacha of Nigeria each embezzled close to $5 billion during their regimes, by directly depositing profits from natural resource exports, stealing from aid money or through systemic graft where the government received kickbacks by overpaying for infrastructure projects (pay a contractor $50 million to make a road when it only costs $5 million…then keep the change), or even by merely taking a hefty percentage from collected taxes.  These kleptocrats surrounded themselves with family members and allies, all of whom benefited from a culture of corruption and had a personal stake in maintaining the status quo.

As these corrupt practices became more prevalent, the regional autocrats knew their citizens were itching for revolutions.  They took over full control of the media and invested heavily in militaries able to squash any potential uprising.  Even when these dictators bowed to international pressure by implementing “democratic reforms,” they bastardized the process by fixing elections; intimidating, arresting and murdering political rivals; selectively counting votes; or creating election standards unreachable by the average citizen.  As recently as 2008, the elections of Zimbabwe were internationally mocked for their corruption.  When Robert Mugabe, president and leader of the Zimbabwean African National Union Party, realized he wasn’t going to win the election fairly, his party merely gathered up all the ballot boxes and claimed victory without even counting the votes.  It wasn’t until months had passed, electoral regulators had been fired and the wife of one of the candidates had her hands and feet cut off before being burned alive, that Mugabe finally announced the predictable conclusion.  In spite of all exit polling data and observations from international bodies, Mugabe won in a landslide.  This was 2008. Mugabe plans to run for re-election again in 2018 when he’ll be 94 years old, and his wife has even drafted plans for him to run the country from the grave (essentially becoming a dictator for life and death). 

African “Big Men” like Mugabe become immune to opposition groups and can stay in power for decades.  As of 2016, nine African leaders had ruled for over twenty years, and three had been in power for over thirty years.

  Every few years, an up and coming politico hopeful might claim to be a servant of the people, a political ideologue immune to the seductive gluttony of African political power, a candidate who promises to right the wrongs of the past, restoring power to the disenfranchised and freeing the nation from arbitrary rule by a legion of heartless aristocrats.  Leaders like Seko, Abacha and Mugabe all rose to power as men of the people out to fight the oppressors, but it was only a matter of time – be it weeks, or months or years – before they too succumbed to the system of exploitation, bribery and repression of social and political freedoms.  Not unsurprisingly, with every passing election, Africans became more and more apathetic to the promises of democracy. 

But there is hope.

In recent years, these “Big Men” have been challenged and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain power beyond constitutionally-mandated term limits.  A complex cocktail of youth, technology and sustained regional and global pressure is starting to transform the politics of Africa.  With 200 million people between the ages of 15-24, Africa has the largest youth population in the world (and this number could double by 2045).  This youth not only has no memory of European imperialism, but it has no memory of the lost decades of the 1980s and 1990s.  In their world, the blame is in front of their face, not historical.  And now that they are connected by social media, they not only can learn from the protest movements around the world, but they can efficiently mobilize to make their voices heard. 

In 2015 in South Africa, just months after the Black Lives Matter protests gained traction in America and while the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement was fresh in their minds, students and community members used Twitter, Facebook, text messaging and YouTube to activate the Cape Town community to force the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from the university steps.  Though initially started as a local affair to rid the campus of a symbol of white supremacy, the movement spread across Africa, eventually forcing the education system to reconsider the role of European voices in African education.

In 2014, in Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaore tried to change the constitution to extend his tenure.  Unlike in previous power grabs, this time the citizens of Burkina Faso swiftly organized and their ensuing protests forced Compaore to flee the country. 

In other attempts to dislodge the “Big Man” monopoly on political power, nations have written into their constitutions strict quotas for female participation.  In 2016, three of the most gender-balanced parliaments in the world were in Africa – South Africa, Senegal and Rwanda.  Rwanda leads the world with females controlling 64% of its legislative body.  Women have also risen to the highest posts in the land, becoming the heads of state in Liberia, Malawi and Mauritius.

African nations have also stepped up to hold their brothers accountable.  Because of the hierarchical history of Afro-European relations, African nations are understandably hesitant to passively accept Western overtures as purely altruistic.  In fact, when the West steps in to challenge the legality of African leaders’ behaviors, their involvement can actually worsen the situation.  In 2012, when the International Criminal Court started a criminal investigation against Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta for his role in ethnic cleansing, witness tampering and bribery, all Kenyatta had to do was decry his case as yet the latest example of European imperialism.  Instead of being imprisoned for crimes he clearly committed, he remained free and actually saw his popularity rise for how he stood up to the white outsiders to the north.  Because of the Western credibility gap, pan-African partnerships like the African Union are one of the few entities with the clout and resources to force ethical and constitutional behavior.  African affairs are increasingly becoming Africa’s burden.

But will these recent successes signal a changing of the tide, where democracy isn’t merely defined by elections that pop up every few years, but by systemic change in how federal and local officials govern their constituencies?

Or will they merely be anomalies drowned out by the challenges that persist?

Because, yes, Burkina Faso protests exiled Blaise Compaore.  Yet, in 2015, when President Nkurunziza refused to step down as Burundi’s head of state, protests likewise ensued.  However, unlike in Burkina Faso, the Burundi election challenge was met with armed violence.  In the year that followed, the military crackdown stranded 250,000 refugees, killed over 450 citizens and threatened to plunge Burundi and nearby countries into armed conflict.  And the African Union’s threats of sanctions and interventions have fallen on deaf ears.  Nkurunziza feels almost emboldened by his regional standoff with the AU.

And yes, women have been elected to high profile posts in Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Liberia, Malawi and Mauritius, but dozens of other African nations still hold fixed views of a patriarchal politics, controlling local and national elections that prevent women from even seeking, let alone achieving political office.

And yes, the 200 million young Africans are motivated and connected, but what happens when instead of using this mobilized connectivity for peaceful protests and civil society, it is used to foment revolution or to radicalize extremist policies and groups?  Will governments acquiesce and evolve or will cross-generational violence erupt?

This eruption will only be avoided if Africa finds a way to improve its economic conditions, because for most Africans, they really don’t care how they’re governed, as long as they can put food on the table and hold the hope of a better future through education and hard work.

By most measures, Africa should be an economic powerhouse.  It is resource rich, home to oil, gold, uranium, iron and diamonds.  It has a huge pool of human resources, home to not only the youngest population in the world, but also one of the largest middle classes.  300 million Africans now fall into the demographic “middle class” where they have an annual purchasing power of close to $1 trillion.  It is centrally located geographically, as its coast shares waters with all continents, increasing the efficiency of trans-ocean trade.

So why then is Africa so darn poor? 

Just look at these stats:

·       Per Capita GDP – One way of measuring a country’s wealth is to divide their Gross Domestic Product (how much goods and services are produced in a year) by the number of people in the country – Per Capita GDP.  In 2016, the world’s average was $11,200. For Luxembourg (admittedly a small country), it was $132,000 and for the US, it was $55,800.  For sixteen African nations, it was below $2000 (Somalia was last at $400).

·       Global Hunger Index – One method of determining the nutritional health of a nation is through the GHI, a formula that adds the percentage of children that die before the age of five, the percentage of children under five that are underweight and the percentage of population that is undernourished.  Most industrialized countries have a sum less than one, whereas 22 Sub-Saharan African nations are above twenty, and Chad, Zambia and the Central African Republic are above 40.

·       Poverty Line – To better understand how many people struggle to make ends meet, the World Bank establishes the poverty line – the amount of money needed in a country to purchase base necessities (shelter, clothing, food, sanitation).  In 2015, the global poverty line number was set at $1.90 per day and only 10% of the planet fell below that line.  In Africa, sixteen countries have more than 50% of their population living on less than $1.90 a day (Chad sits at the bottom with over 80% living in poverty).


According to these stats, Africans are producing less, working less and eating less than the rest of the world.  How could this be?

Do they have natural resources?  Check.  They have 90% of the world’s platinum (used in lab equipment, car engines and jewelry), 90% of the world’s chromium (used for stainless steel tools), 40% of the world’s gold and 10% of the world’s oil.

Do they have human resources?  Check.  They have a huge worker pool.  Remember that little stat from earlier about the size of their youth population?  Well, not only does Africa have the most young people, overall it has over a billion people right now and forecasters predict that number will rise to 2.5 billion by 2050.

If they have all the materials and if they have the people, what’s the problem?

Well, first, having too many natural resources can actually be a curse.  When you’re a developing economy, the easiest road to wealth is to just suck the resources out of the earth and then sell them to the world.  For the three decades after independence, economic planners continually chose the short-term profits of natural resource exportation over the more fiscally sound choice of prioritizing and investing in a variety of sectors.  Africa basically put all of its eggs in one basket, and this basket is filled with exhaustible gifts of nature.  This resource curse left Africa both vulnerable to the importing swings of their buyer nations, but also provided little incentive for long-term investment in manufacturing, industry and education.  Why invest in an uncertain future when you can get rich by merely tapping the mineral and fuel reserves hidden beneath the surface?

 Countries like Singapore, Japan, South Korea (and even Germany and England) lead the world in GDP, but their natural resources pale in comparison to those of Africa.  They were forced to look outside their borders for resources and markets for their goods, forced to develop the technology, infrastructure and labor force necessary to survive.  If not, they would have remained agricultural nations, stuck in the dark ages of human evolution.

Africa doesn’t suffer from the geological disadvantages of a Singapore or a Japan or a South Korea.  Yet, they also never created the manufacturing centers able to process these gifts from the earth.  Africa remains merely an extraction point in the globalized industrial production chain, leaving the true profits of production to those nations with the factories, technology, skilled labor and needed infrastructure to reap the benefits of the land. 

This precedent for resource extraction, established after the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century and maintained throughout the Cold War, continues today, but this time it’s not only the European powers that are using Africa as their own personal mining outlets.  Until Africa creates its own manufacturing and distribution hubs, they will remain at the whims of foreign powers.  When the economies of the industrialized world flourished in the early 2000s, the price of African commodities likewise skyrocketed, producing national growth rates sometimes eclipsing 10%.  But when the factories slowed in 2008, the demand for African commodities likewise plummeted, and the lives of Africans regressed into abject despair.

By 2015, African nations like Nigeria, Ghana, Angola and Zambia earned over 90% of their GDP from exporting natural resources, but after 2008, countries started making less and subsequently started importing less from Africa.  The price of oil dropped from $151 in June 2008 to $28 in January 2016.  The demand for copper, platinum and natural gas fell off the cliff.  What looked like a wealth boom had become a bust.  Without this export income stream, economies were decimated.

Because the African nations are so far behind in the global game of industrialization, they can’t even come close to producing the goods at the cost or the efficiency of their competitors in Europe, Latin America, and South and East Asia.  Subsequently, with every passing year, African resources dwindle while the profits are reaped by countries on foreign continents (not even neighboring nations).  Whereas a developing country like Mexico conducts more than 90% of its trade with its two regional neighbors – the United States and Canada, in Africa the trend is almost completely reversed. 80% of their trade totally leaves the continent.  It is these distant countries that then process these ores for their own manufacturing and domestic consumption.  Angola sends coffee to France, Kenya sends cement to, Zimbabwe sends tobacco to Spain, Zambia sends copper to Japan, Nigeria sends oil to the United States and to China…well, everything goes to China. 

In 2008, China surpassed the US as Africa’s leading importer of goods – some $60 billion in natural resources ranging from oil to aluminum to chromite to cobalt to steel to zinc to coal to uranium to tantalum (that little black rock used to make your cell phones).  In 2014, that number had soared to over $200 billion.  And Africa loves trading with the Middle Kingdom, because Chinese money doesn’t come with conditions.  China doesn’t care how governments treat their citizens or their environments.  They just need resources.  This disinterest makes it difficult for Western countries to put pressure on Africa to change their behavior.  In the early 2000s, when the Sudanese government was murdering its own people, Canada threatened to pull out its funding from the national oil industry.  Sudan didn’t blink.  Once Canada left, China just swooped in and helped finance the construction of the pipelines, wells, airports and roads needed to harness and ship the desired oil.  China’s international trading behavior forces nations to likewise consider ignoring health and environmental standards, or else risk being shut out of key markets. 

But China doesn’t owe Africa anything.  In 2015, Chinese officials chose to move their economy away from a reliance on manufacturing, dramatically decreasing the demand for African natural resources.  African wealth plummeted.

So if there are close to a billion people living in Africa, shouldn’t profit-seeking firms be jumping at the opportunities to hire African laborers?  Why aren’t there huge factories in Africa?  Not that running textile and trinket sweatshops signifies an advanced economy, but these manufacturing plants do provide incomes to the millions crammed into cities. Like in Vietnam, Indonesia, India or Bangladesh, countries where millions of people move to urban areas seeking any sort of hourly wage, shouldn’t Africa offer an appealing labor pool?

Not exactly.  Despite radical improvements in recent decades, for many, the education system is atrocious, which means their skills are likewise suspect.  Here are a few of the encouraging stats:

·       Primary school attendance increased over 250% from 1999-2012.

·       College attendance rates went up 125% in the first decade of the 21st century – from 2.3 million to 5.2 million.

·       18% of African government expenditures go to education, the highest rate in the world.


But then, here is the not-so-encouraging data:

·       Africa is home to 8 of the 10 countries with the lowest primary school attendance rates.

·       1/3 of the world’s children that aren’t going to school live in Africa.

·       There are only enough secondary schools (high schools) for 36% of Africans.

·       6% of Africans go to college.  26% go worldwide.


Looking at the stats, two things become clear – 1) Africa’s education is improving at a remarkable rate, and 2) Africa’s education was at such an abysmal place entering the 21st century that it still has a long way to go.  In the 1980s, African nations sought to reduce their debt by cutting social services – specifically education funding.  So today, teachers are either underpaid or not paid at all. Some teachers just stop coming to work.  Dilapidated school buildings house fifth-hand resources, and most paradoxical of all, students have to pay for these services.  African children have to bring coins to school to pay their teacher, or they won’t have a teacher.  Is it any wonder that only 60% of Africans even achieve a primary school education?  Those who eventually do graduate from secondary and postsecondary schools often leave the region for other countries where job opportunities match their skill set.

For girls, the conditions can be worse.  In 2015, over 20 million girls did not go to school.  Some didn’t go because they were responsible for taking care of the home or securing the day’s water supply.  Others didn’t go because parents can’t afford school fees for boys and girls.   Still others didn’t attend because of the threat of physical violence or because they have no way of taking care of their feminine hygiene and are embarrassed should their menstrual cycles arrive while at school.  In recent years, governments and aid agencies have worked to educate families on the value (short term and long term) of all children attending school, and also to provide the financial means necessary to pay for girls’ fees and then protect their health and safety once they’re at a school.

Still, regardless the regional and international reform efforts, today a proportionately high level of young adults don’t have the skills and knowledge to contribute economically to their potential.  If this dearth of skill in the labor pool wasn’t enough to dissuade any would-be entrepreneur from starting a company, the unreasonable cost of labor becomes the final straw.  When all countries are ranked on a “difficulty of hiring index,” yet again, Africa stands out as the most problematic.  Minimum wages don’t match skills, contracts unfairly punish the employer and it is nearly impossible for employers to require workers to put in a 40-hour workweek.  Firing an employee isn’t any easier.  Employers have to pay hefty severance packages, keeping their fired employees on the payroll for weeks and sometimes months, and the paper trail needed to document incompetency borders on ridiculous.  These frustrating practices don’t even take into account some of the more extreme regional requirements where employers have to pay for an employee family’s funeral costs, have to pay for employee family’s tuition or have to excuse employees for time lost due to extreme illnesses (AIDS and tuberculosis primarily).  The balance of power is tipped so far in the direction of the employees that foreign companies will often bring in their own laborers to actually get the job done cheaply and efficiently.  Is it any wonder then that only 3% of all global investment reaches Africa?  It’s not exactly a profit seekers dream locale.

Africa’s dismal economic state isn’t unfamiliar to the world community.  People, organizations and countries are trying to help, but fortunately this “help” has been as detrimental to African development as the resource curse.  There has never before in human history been a region of the world that has received so much financial aid for such an extended period of time as has Africa.  And the results call into question if this aid is actually beneficial.  There are two types of foreign aid – there are the billions of dollars in remittances sent by African emigrants back to their families in the homeland and then there are the aid dollars, both in loans and in grants, to governments to help improve the social programs for their citizens.  Few would argue that the money that directly provides food, water, shelter, health and education to the suffering masses is in any way a negative. 

But it is.  Today, after five decades of focused assistance from the Western world (close to $600 billion), Africa still struggles to provide its people with the bare necessities.  Although there isn’t a direct correlation between aid and suffering, a majority of African NGOs have requested that aid be, if not stopped, at least strongly reconsidered. 

But why?  When foreign money enters a country, there’s more money, which leads to rising inflation, which leads to banks lending less money to control the money supply, which leads to fewer locals being able to create businesses.  Next, when foreign money comes into countries, it often comes with stipulations, little rules that the receiving government has to honor.  Governments then find themselves listening more to the whims of donor nations than their own people.  For example, a country like the United States might demand that wages are increased, that labor is protected and that more stringent environmental laws are followed.  Although well-intentioned, these requirements have unexpected negative consequences of making countries less attractive to corporate investment.  Why make your Nike shoes in expensive Africa when they can roll off the factory floor in Vietnam for a fraction of the cost?  Also, when governments know they have a guaranteed source of income every year from a foreign body, they have less incentive to help out their own people.  If there was no outside aid, the parties in power would have to answer to the demands of their people or they would find themselves out of power at the next election.

And the last problem is that relying on outside aid is inconsistent.  In 2008, Africa received $20 billion in remittances from African expatriates and $35 billion in foreign aid.  After the recession, these numbers plunged.  When a household, a company or a country has to tighten their budgets, one of the first cuts they make are charitable donations, and aid to Africa took a huge hit post-2008. The free money stopped coming into the country.

By 2016, as the global economy recovered, Africa received $55 billion in foreign aid and African families received $40 billion in remittances from African expatriates (although these remittance figures could be closer to $160 billion…it’s hard to track how much money relatives actually give back to their families).

            How can a family, let alone a country, budget and plan for the future when so much of their income is conditional on the behaviors and choices made by those living overseas?

If the industrialized world truly wanted to help Africa, they could shut down the tax havens where the kleptocrats store their stolen wealth.  Every year, over $150 billion (over 6% of the region’s total GDP) leaves Africa to be protected in one of the scores of countries that encourage overseas deposits.  Countries like Bermuda, Switzerland, Singapore, Luxembourg, the Maldives and the Cayman Islands willingly take the money of outsiders, with no questions asked.  A billion stolen one day can be deposited in an offshore account the next.  Not only does this money not go back to the social programs of individual nations, but the money isn’t even circulated through the economy.  One might be able to excuse a corrupt autocrat if he at least bought his luxury goods from local stores, but when the money leaves the country, it is lost forever.  So if the world truly cared about the course of Africa, they should reconsider their $40 billion in aid, and instead focus on litigation that can prevent the $150 billion fleecing of the African people.

How is it then that if so many statistics point to Africa failing, so many Africans are finding success?  In 2016, over 300 million Africans were considered middle class, not simply able to afford the necessities, but able to purchase so many of the luxury goods that appeared unattainable for decades.  Even though the narrative leaving Africa is one of unemployment and privation, the narrative for tens of millions is one of opportunity and advancement.  Because of the steady increase in secondary school graduates, the internal and external investment in basic infrastructure like roads, power lines and sanitation and the entrepreneurial zeal of the younger generation, tens of millions of families rarely see the horror stories shared to the outside world.  In churches across Africa, priests are preaching the “wealth is Godly” message that spurred the rise of the United States capitalist energy.  Africa is also experiencing a “brain gain” where many Africans are returning to their homeland, realizing the best chance for prosperity rests amongst their own people. 

In recent years, African banks have been more willing to lend money to entrepreneurs, whether they’re building manufacturing plants or designing urban restaurants or joining the IT world where a regional idea can become a global phenomenon.  African entrepreneurs are also finding that instead of focusing on reproducing what the world sees as consumer wants and needs, they should instead figure out exactly what interests the over 2000 different ethnicities across their own continent.  For example, in 2014, after recognizing the challenges of building companies in regions with inconsistent Internet access, the Kenyan company BRCK designed a portable wi-fi device that could be taken into remote areas and to provide a consistent signal.  This technology boom has flattened Africa, and cities like Nairobi, Kenya (nicknamed the “Silicon Savannah”) have spawned copycat IT clusters across the region.

More and more children are being raised seeing wealth around them.  72% of school children see “entrepreneur” as a good career. In 2016, the Forbes 500 listed 24 African billionaires, making their riches from trading, banking, manufacturing, communication and energy.  With each passing generation, as the idea of “making money” replaces the idea of “taking money,” African economies will continue to grow through the backs and brains of their younger generation.

Tragically, for some African regions, violence and war have made it nonsensical, if not impossible, to even begin to map out a course of economic development.  How can a family worry about job prospects, when they’re surrounded by terrorism, civil war or government-sanctioned intimidation? 

Since 2010, two Islamic terrorist groups – Boko Haram and Al Shabaab have borrowed the strategies of Al Qaeda and ISIS to take over (and even govern) vast swaths of land through terror and intimidation.  In the northern region of Nigeria, Boko Haram has used quick military strikes, bombings and kidnappings to fund and grow their movement.  Boko Haram forbids any Muslim from taking part in Western society – be it education or elections or capitalism or entertainment.  In April 2014, Boko Haram soldiers kidnapped 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria.  This kidnapping gained international recognition, inspiring the Bring Back our Girls movement that pressured African and international nations to end Boko Haram’s reign of terror.  This pressure, coupled with an African Union military force (Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Niger, Chad) has made it harder for Boko Haram to find sanctuary in the houses of locals or to expand and recruit future would-be terrorists.   By the end of 2016, Boko Haram’s military force had dwindled, and in May 2017, 82 of the kidnapped Chibok girls were freed.

As long as northern Nigerians fail to reap the benefits of the number one economy in Africa, the potential for violence from non-state actors will always be high.  Also, the question remains for how long can Nigeria and neighboring countries continue to approve the billions of dollars necessary to fund a full-scale war.

Across the continent in Somalia, the terrorist group Al Shabaab has likewise seen their rapid rise stalled, for the moment.  Taking advantage of a power vacuum created by decades of civil war, warlord gang violence and armed conflict with neighboring Egypt, Al Shabaab (or “the Youngsters) emerged in 2011 as the preeminent Islamic terrorist group in East Africa.  With less than 10,000 members (both Somali and foreign fighters), Al Shabaab at one point controlled over 1/3 of Somali land (about the size of Colorado), even setting up local governments and a system for tax collecting.  Al Shabaab believes in their interpretation of Sharia Law (a return to 9th century Islamic rule), banning any cultural behavior seen as Western or depraved.  Somalis can no longer watch Western movies or soccer, dance at weddings or even set music as their cell phone ringtones.  Punishments include cutting off of hands for stealing, stoning of women seen talking to men and the public whipping of anyone perceived to believe in a non-Muslim faith.  2014 saw the peak of their power and regional influence, but in recent years, horrific drought conditions and an inability to transition from terrorist group to governing authority have shrunk their numbers and regional support.  In an attempt to pull jihadists from around the world, in 2016, Al Shabaab even resorted to creating recruitment videos depicting converts taking jungle safaris, eating fruit and swimming in jungled oases.  By the end of 2016, Al Shabaab had almost entirely ceased their major military advances, focusing instead on terrorist bombings against soft targets – coastal restaurants, unprotected rural villages and isolated homes of senior officials.  Although their brief reign as an organized military force to be feared has come to an end, their resumed focus on terrorist attacks of innocents sees no end in sight. 

Aside from this growing threat of terrorism, rampant violence still devastates huge swaths of African land.  Even though in total numbers of casualties and lives impacted, Africa is at greater peace in 2016 than at any other time in the last 100 years, in 2016, the region was still home to more than half the world’s conflicts.   Borrowing from the divide and conquer techniques employed by the most ruthless of the European colonizers, political parties and rebel groups today continue to employ intimidation and brutality to secure supporters.  In 2016, fifteen nations were at war (including conflicts in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Nigeria, Uganda and Mali).  However, it was the conflict in Sudan (most specifically the Darfur region) that monopolized media headlines at the turn of the century. 

Since 1955, the northern and southern regions of Sudan had been fighting an on-again, off-again civil war over the south’s desire for their own independence.  By the 1990s, with Cold War machinations no longer influencing governmental policy, conflict soared again, and international agencies and nations intervened, trying to quell tension.  Adding to the north-south conflict, in the rural areas, religious-based rebel groups waged an all-out war (approaching genocide) on neighboring villages, killing some 2.5 million innocents, enslaving generations of youths to fight in local militias and turning six million people into refugees.  Finally, in 2011, South Sudan gained their independence.  But even though South Sudan started off with no debt and huge resource wealth (specifically from oil), by 2016 the newest nation on the planet plunged into bankruptcy and regressed back into civil war.

The conflict in Sudan brought to the international attention all the issues that consistently plague Africa – political corruption, sadistic militias, human starvation and suffering, international exploitation of regional resources and ethnic tension caused by arbitrary political boundaries.  But when South Sudan officially became a country in July 2011, and the atrocities of Darfur ceased to garner front-page attention, the vicious conflicts in Africa by no means subsided.  Whether they’re fighting for access to better jobs, fighting to overthrow the government in power, fighting to redress an ethnic slight from generations past or fighting for their survival, these conflicts kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians monthly, creating a culture of fear and suffering, while also contributing to a refugee crisis where over five million Africans have lost their homes and currently seek sanctuary in a neighboring land.  Oftentimes, this influx of refugees only exacerbates the already tense ethnic balance in the neighboring country, creating yet more conflict, destruction and death.  By 2016, this refugee crisis moved beyond Africa’s borders, with hundreds of thousands seeking sanctuary across the Mediterranean Sea in Europe.

As much as war destroys families across Africa, the real cause of suffering isn’t terrorism and bullets, it’s disease and an inconsistently improving healthcare system.  But before looking at how bad it still is, let’s first look at how much better it’s gotten.

Since 2000, Africa has seen its life expectancy increase by over 10% in 30 countries (with Malawi increasing from 44.1 years in 2000 to 62.7 years in 2014).  That improvement can’t be simply discounted.  One reason for the increased life expectancy is how the continent has handled the HIV/AIDS epidemic. At the turn of the century, nowhere in the world was the AIDS picture more grim than in Africa.  In 2000, UN Secretary Kofi Annan declared that far more deaths came from AIDS than all the conflicts in Africa combined.  Millions were dying every year and millions were becoming infected annually.  Close to 70% of the HIV/AIDS cases were in African countries.

These results stemmed from a combination of naivety, cruelty, social taboos and economic and medical realities.  For years, some leaders denied AIDS even existed.  Others argued it couldn’t be transmitted sexually.  Rumors spread that AIDS medicines were actually poisonous (one leading South African health minister even suggested the only treatments were beetroot, garlic, lemons and African potatoes).  Condoms carry a stigma both for men and women.  Men who wear condoms are seen as less virile.  Women hesitate to even request the use of a condom, fearing being labeled promiscuous, or worse, raped or beaten for making such an insulting request.

In 2003, only 100,000 of the nearly 20 millions HIV sufferers had access to the Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) that could keep the disease in check, preventing it from turning into AIDS, where a person’s immune system totally shuts down, opening them to death from any number of ailments.  The drugs were too expensive and too rare, meaning that only the most financially able and connected could access the treatment (one of the reasons why NBA basketball player Magic Johnson has survived with HIV since 1991).  In 2004, 1.4 million Africans died of AIDS.

Over the next decade, HIV/AIDS treatment changed.  Governments and foreign aid providers improved abstinence education and contraception availability, decreasing the spread of the disease.  Pharmaceutical manufacturers from countries like India and international donors lowered the cost of the ART pills.  By 2015, close to 14 million Africans were taking ART drugs.  Yes, this number still fell short of the 27 million that needed help, but the radical treatment increase speaks to the improvements in the African health industry.

Running parallel to enhanced HIV/AIDS treatment, the medical industry prioritized prevention of all diseases and illnesses, by expanding access to immunization, mosquito resistant bed nets and a host of generic drugs that could treat any number of previously ignored ailments.  Cases of malaria and tuberculosis dropped dramatically.

But then Ebola broke out in 2014 and the entire continent’s medical industry went again under the magnifying lens.  It became obvious that hospitals weren’t communicating with each other, that nurses and doctors weren’t all properly trained in 21st techniques, that hospitals and clinics lacked the funds to provide safe and hygienic facilities and that governments had done little to instill confidence in their people.  Even at the height of the Ebola scare, the inflicted believed they had a better chance of survival if they stayed at home than if they went to a public hospital. 

Oddly, one of the reasons why the healthcare industries failed to evolve has been the hyper-prioritization of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.  In some countries, more healthcare money goes to treating these three ailments than all other health needs combined.  Instead of putting money towards staffing, resourcing and educating doctors to combat all medical problems, the majority of funds go to setting up AIDS, malaria and TB clinics and paying for the relevant pills.  For Africa to overhaul their entire medical system and improve the quality of life of their people, they’ll have to invest long-term gains that benefit everyone, not short-term fixes that treat a relatively select few.

And in so many places, they already have.  For hundreds of millions of Africans, life is not about despair and sickness.  Like the rest of the developed world, life is about getting a good education, getting a job, spending time with family and participating fully in the global consumer society.  Nigeria encapsulates the dichotomy of Africa.  Yes, terrorism and violence impacts a portion of their nation.  Yes, outbreaks of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and even ebola have touched its people.  And yes, corruption and political ineptitude still can be seen.

But Nigeria also houses millions relatively untouched by this despair.  They spend their weekends watching one of the dozens of films coming out of Nollywood, Nigeria’s $3.3 billion film industry.  They shop at one of the freshly built malls.  They drive around in Toyotas, Kias and VWs.  They vacation at one of dozens of coastal resorts.  They live lives like middle classers all over the planet. 

But unlike middle classers all over the planet, their economic and social gains still feel so tenuous.  Until the newly built systems become trusted and engrained in society, households will always be just one corrupt leader, one neighboring conflict or one global downturn away from retreating back to insecurity and strife. 

            The key from here is that these changes must become permanent, enumerated in law books, ingrained in the culture and repeated through formalized structures, so that when flawed men inevitably rise to power or neighboring strife unavoidably spills across the border, the nation’s future remain assured.  For until those changes are permanent, the African nations surviving below the Sahara will continue to sink back into the pits of despair that have disastrously become the norm and not the exception.

But Africa isn’t the only developing region on the cusp of chaos, trying to emerge from the dark shadow of European imperial rule.  Across the Atlantic Ocean lies Latin America, where two continents and their peoples slowly emerge from centuries of exploitation, and similarly deal with ethnic, political and social realities that threaten to derail their development.

But that is for another chapter.