If you’re looking for a 675-page, depressing book, I have just the thing for you: “The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor” by Martin Meredith. As a survey history, it’s informative and well written, and I’m glad I read it after visiting Kenya and Tanzania.
But when you consider what has happened to the people there, enslaved by the Pharaohs 5,000 years ago and then ruled by the likes of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Robert Mugabe and other pillagers, that’s what makes this depressing.
Meredith reports that Africa has the highest levels of poverty and the lowest levels of life expectancy. When the book was published in 2014, only a quarter of the continent’s workers had stable, wage-paying jobs; two-thirds made their living through subsistence activities or low-wage self-employment. Between 1960 and 2010, African food production fell by 10 percent while the rest of the world’s went up 150 percent. The number of undernourished Africans is 250 million in its population of 1 billion. The entire African continent’s economic output is 2.7 percent of the world’s economy, equal to $1.7 trillion, about the same as a single nation such as Russia.
There’s gold, diamonds, minerals, metals, arable lands and oil, oil, oil, but where has the money from those resources gone? Some to foreign corporations, but most of it into the pockets of that long list of corrupt ruling pillagers. The last chapter in Meredith’s book is a country-by-country, billion-dollar-by-billion-dollar ledger of corruption in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In recent years, corruption has cost Africa $148 billion annually, “more than a quarter of the continent’s entire gross domestic product.”
The overall population of Africa is increasing faster than any other part of the world. Forty percent of Africans live in cities with miles of slums and shantytowns that lack sanitation, clean water, paved roads and electricity.
Meredith concludes with this from a United Nations report: “ ‘The unfolding pattern (in Africa) is one of disjointed, dysfunctional and unsustainable urban geographies of inequality and human suffering, with oceans of poverty containing islands of wealth.’ The urban crisis, it concluded, posed a threat not only to the stability of Africa’s cities but to entire nations.”
Which leads us to some questions that were raised in an earlier post here: Should the United States government, either through its military or through diplomacy, be involved in sorting out this mess? Could we mount a humanitarian effort that would be effective? Should the U.S. stay to get our hands on the resources before Russia, Islamic terrorists or China do?
And the Chinese influence is growing in Africa. As Meredith points out: “While Western powers continued to lecture African governments about corruption, transparency, human rights and democracy, China made no such demands. In pursuit of Africa’s riches, it was prepared to set up deals with dictators, despots and unsavory regimes of every hue, with no strings attached.”
Those questions about should we stay or should we go are now being addressed by the U.S. military commanders in Africa, according to a New York Times article published Dec. 24, 2019. Defense Secretary Mark Esper expects an initial decision in January.
Pulling out could mean abandoning a $110 million airbase in Niger being used to launch drone attacks. It could mean running out on French forces fighting extremists in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. (Hey, you colonized them so here’s the bill.)
In re-shifting the 200,000 service men and women the United States has overseas, it could mean confronting China and Russia more directly (Does the Commander-in-chief know about that Russian part?). It could mean endorsing Esper’s priority to get away from years of counter-terrorism deployments that try to “maintain minimum stability but without much prospect of definitive solutions.” He wants to quit going after “extremists who lack the demonstrated ability and intent to attack the U.S. on its own soil,” according to officials quoted in the NYT story.
So we might leave behind some intelligence forces, and if we learn some country is sponsoring, say, a training camp for Saudi Arabia pilots or some such, we might bomb it to smithereens, hoping we miss wedding parties, which we did not in Afghanistan.
The U.S., military or otherwise, could mount a humanitarian effort that could feed, water and save the African population, which is expected to reach 1.2 billion by 2050. That may be a naïve notion. Or, walk away, keeping American lives and treasures here at home. That may be heartless, placing Africa in the hopeless category. And that’s very depressing.