Africa and its unresolved problems

The African continent continues to face a number of obstacles that pose major challenges

REUTERS/NJERI MWANGI  -   Signage at the Kenya-Tanzania border crossing in Namanga, Tanzania

Africa overcame the process of colonisation but continues to face pressing problems

Starting with colonisation as one of the main triggers for the current situation of African societies, we go back to the Berlin Conference at the end of the 19th century (1884-1885) between European countries. This partitioning process was carried out solely with the interests of the colonising powers in mind, without ever considering the indigenous communities, creating arbitrary borders that divided and indeed continue to divide ethnic groups. Today, after African independence, between 40 and 45% of the population belongs to groups that have been divided by "European" established borders. This ethnic impact is one of the main conflict factors today, but not the only one.

Continuing on the ethnic side, at the time of partition 834 ethnic groups were affected, with a particular focus on those that were divided between more than one country. One of the best-known ethnic groups, the Maasai, were divided between Kenya (62%) and Tanzania (38%); the Anyi between Ghana (58%) and Côte d'Ivoire (42%); and the Chewa between Mozambique (50%), Malawi (34%) and Zimbabwe (16%)1. They are by no means the most affected, considering cases such as the Malinke who are divided into six countries (Angola, Zaire and Zambia) or the Nukwe, into four (Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana).

REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI - General view of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The Europeans arbitrarily distributed the African territory, ignoring its geographical and cultural characteristics, no longer with a view to the creation of states, but as mere colonies, areas of exploitation and free trade. Over the years, it has become clear that the vast majority of civil conflicts are concentrated in the historical homeland of the divided ethnic groups. It is estimated that there is a 25% greater likelihood of conflict in these areas than in the homelands of non-separated ethnic groups. The Afar (divided between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti) and Esa (split between Ethiopia and Somalia) stand out, having experienced five civil wars between 1970 and 2005.

On the other hand, the historical and unpayable debt inherited from the invading states. The African continent was and is a mine of natural resources, as well as labour, not cheap, but free. The exploitation of these resources was possible and profitable thanks to the enslavement of its population, who paid the colonies with their "labour". Refusal to pay this "tax" meant sanctions such as physical abuse, mutilation, rape, or execution. In short, the construction of critical infrastructures by European powers was seen as a "favour" being offered to "those underdeveloped regions", which were forced to bear the costs and pay the amount to the European power. Remembering that these infrastructures were intended for the production of economic profit for the power, not for the improvement of the living conditions of the indigenous population, who lived enslaved and immersed in poverty and in an unpayable and growing debt. The more they worked, the more debt they generated.

PHOTO/AFP - Miners at the Wonderkop settlement in Marikana, near Rustenburg, South Africa, on 15 May 2020

Believing that the era of colonisation would be the culmination of their problems, "independence" came along, generating even more debt and greater problems. The term "independence" is used in inverted commas because independence is relative. Interventionism has been and continues to be latent in every corner of Africa: at the time of the transfer of powers to the native Governments, the European powers took advantage of the inexperienced native administrations to monopolise all the companies and businesses set up under their authority. When it came to the distribution of assets, in many cases it was left to the free choice of whether to keep the headquarters on indigenous soil or to transfer the personality under colonial control; the latter being more profitable, most of the entities opted for the second option, and the newly created African states were left without their own companies, with the exploitation of their lands continuing in the hands of the colonies, the only ones to benefit.

In short, a dictatorial era ensued in most of the new African governments, supported by the Europeans who provided "development aid", money that was never used to improve the precarious living conditions of their populations. This aid must be paid back, without having generated any benefit whatsoever; on the contrary, to this day it adds to the total amount of millions to be paid back2.

AFP/FADEL SENNA - A factory employee works on a car assembly line at the Kenitra PSA car assembly plant

In addition to the historical problems inherited illegitimately and, it could be said, illegally, there are those arising from the contemporary age of our times. Although Africa is the continent that emits the least CO2 into the atmosphere, it is the hardest hit.

In recent years the temperature has risen by one and two degrees, causing devastating effects on the region's climates: torrential rains, great droughts, as well as increased desertification, making it an even more arid zone. All these elements contribute to the destruction of the terrain, which encourages the spread of pests, diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria, and the ruin of crops, leading to the collapse of the economy.

These factors provoke, facilitate and stimulate the emergence of famines and epidemics, as well as making access to drinking water and medical treatment impossible, and widening the gap in the distribution of wealth and social inequalities3.

PIXABAY - Busy street in Ghana

This chain will get harder and harder over the years, aggravating the situation in Africa, along with a debt that is growing exponentially and unchecked. African governments are asking for help and cooperation from other countries to develop measures to alleviate the effects of climate change, but if their pleas are heeded, the only thing that would result would be the inflation of the historical debt and few effective solutions.

If global warming continues on its current path, the diagnosed setbacks for African economies would range from 3.3 to 8.2 per cent4, increasing social conflict and criminality and triggering migration. By way of example, we take this last year, with the COVID as the protagonist: while the rest of the continents are making progress in the vaccination process, Africa has less than 1% of its population vaccinated and more than five million infected5.

As if that were not enough, corruption plays a key role on the continent, leading the world rankings. According to data published in 2014 on international transparency, the five most corrupt countries were Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau and Angola, with Burundi, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo close behind. In 2016 Nigeria announced that $6.8 billion6 had been stolen from public coffers since 2010. Given the importance of the terrorist organisation Boko Haram in the country, it is not surprising that more and more of its inhabitants are joining or supporting them in the face of growing distrust of the government and its institutions, which are becoming more and more bloated with money while their population is becoming impoverished by leaps and bounds. It is important to note, however, that corruption is not only limited to public office but is a reality on the street in all walks of life. It is conceivable that in most cases illicit business is the only possible way to make a living for their families.

AP/NARDUS ENGELBRECHT - A person wears a face mask to protect against the coranavirus at a shopping centre in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa

Having mentioned the need for foreign economic aid to survive, it is important to highlight one fact: the amount of illegal money flows is equal to the amount of development aid received and investment made in the continent, ranging between 48 and 54 billion dollars in 2013 and 2015 respectively7. These data show a factor that hinders the international community's confidence in investing in its progress.

As Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development)8 said: "Illegal financial flows deprive Africa and its people of prospects, undermining transparency and accountability and eroding confidence in African institutions"9.

Natural resources play an important role in intertwining this and the next point to be addressed. There is a problem, and it is related to the first section of this article: the lack of enterprises that allow for self-sufficiency, making them absolutely dependent on imports. 

PHOTO - Africa

More than half of the exports from sub-Saharan Africa are crude oil, natural gas, gold and diamonds, but imports are mostly treated oil, medicines and cars, which are sold without any profit and under economic independence. They provide the raw materials but need to import the final products, as they lack the means to process and utilise them. As mentioned in The World Order, while 65% of exports correspond to primary products (oil, gas and food), 70% refer to imports of manufactured products such as machinery and vehicles (assuming a higher investment over profits)10.

Focusing on water, the importance of water is potentially evident; something so basic that in our societies it becomes an element of control in this region, domination and even as a deadly weapon. The control of aquifers, especially in times of drought, becomes a strategy of control and blackmail. On the other hand, water has been and is poisoned on countless occasions to deprive the population of it, by militias or criminal or terrorist organisations, who appropriate the deposits to keep them subdued and controlled.

AFP/FADEL SENNA - Workers pack disposable face masks on a production line in Casablanca, Morocco, 10 April 2020

At the continental level, work is being done to boost the intra-national economy, something that favours the region but which will once again highlight the power of each state, widening the gap between them as certain powers, those that so far possess the greatest monetary and natural wealth, come out on top.

This brings us to the last point to be addressed: civil conflicts, terrorism and organised crime. The African continent is currently home to 2111 armed conflicts (compared to the six recognised in 200512), a fact that is encouraging and which feeds back into the above, turning the problem of Africa into a never-ending uroboros.

The absence of strong government institutions has fostered the rise of under-governed states, turning vast areas into areas of control for terrorist and organised crime organisations, who take advantage of the absence of control and porous borders to carry out their criminal activities13. In many cases these organisations have become the only source of civil protection and social services for the indigenous populations.

AP/BEN CURTIS - Picture of poverty on the West African continent

The geographical location for the settlement of these groups tends to be in strategic areas of border control or resource control, as mentioned above, as well as in areas of historical ethnic conflict resulting from colonial division, as discussed at the beginning of the article.

Analysing the continent by region, we begin with the Maghreb, which presents the "best" conditions. Tunisia stands out as the epicentre of the Arab Spring and Libya in particular, with a conflict that remains unresolved. The Sahel, the area with the worst record of continued violence worldwide, continues to be plagued by inter-ethnic rivalry over scarce natural resources, which even foreign intervention has failed to appease. This situation is exploited by terrorist organisations, which further destabilise the region. Mali has established itself as the most violent country on the continent and the main focus of armed Jihad. West Africa: the instability of the neighbouring Sahel region has spilled over into the countries of this region, giving rise to groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or its splinter, ISWAP. This area has become the link to Latin American drug trafficking14.

AP/THEMBA HADEB - People affected by the coronavirus economic crisis queue for food donations at the Iterileng informal settlement near Laudium, southwest of Pretoria, South Africa

On the other hand, the Horn of Africa, a conglomerate of clashes over nation-building processes, control of resources or cultural and ethnic rivalries. In addition to the conflict over the waters of the Nile with neighbouring countries, the emergence of jihadist organisations such as Al-Shabaab, a subsidiary of Al-Qaeda, has managed to play a fundamental role in the area, based on the use of violence. Finally, sub-Saharan Africa, with the presence of Jihadist terrorism, particularly Ansar al-Sunna, as well as major pandemics such as Ebola.

All of this in addition to the high presence of criminal organisations that traffic in people, especially women for exploitation as sex objects in Western countries, and arms and drug trafficking.

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  2. Umoya. (2019). La carga de la deuda de la República Democrática del Congo. Umoya.
  3. Herranz, D. (2021). El cambio climático sitúa a África como la zona más vulnerable y con la evolución más rápida del calentamiento global. Público.
  4. Íbidem.
  5. DW. (2021). El coronavirus en África: 5 millones de contagios y solo 2% de vacunados. DW.
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  11. 6 ECA’s Vera Songwe issues clarion call for urgent action to silence the guns in Africa. Comisión Económica de la ONU para África, 06/02/20. Disponible en Fecha de consulta: 11/03/20.
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