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10-08-2015, 22:52

Dream and Reality: Political and Economic Conditions in Contemporary Africa

The program of the OAU had forecast a future Africa based on freedom, equality, justice, and dignity and on the unity, solidarity, and territorial integrity of African states. It did not take long for reality to set in. Vast disparities in education and income made it hard to establish democracy in much of Africa. Expectations that independence would lead to stable political structures based on “one person, one vote” were soon disappointed as the initial phase of pluralistic governments gave way to a series of military regimes and one-party states. Between 1957 and 1982, more than seventy leaders of African countries were overthrown by violence, and the pace has increased since then. Hopes that independence would inaugurate an era of economic prosperity and equality were similarly dashed. Part of the problem could be (and was) ascribed to the lingering effects of colonialism. Most newly independent countries in Africa were dependent on the export of a single crop or natural resource. When prices fluctuated or dropped, they were at the mercy of the vagaries of the international market. In several cases, the resources were still controlled by foreigners, leading to the charge that colonialism had been succeeded by “neocolonialism,” in which Western domination was maintained by economic rather than by political or military means. To make matters worse, most African states had to import technology and manufactured goods from the West, and the prices of those goods rose more rapidly than those of the export products. The new states also contributed to their own problems. Scarce national resources were squandered on military equipment or expensive consumer goods rather than on building up their infrastructure to provide the foundation for an industrial economy. Corruption, a painful reality throughout the modern world, became almost a way of life in Africa, as bribery (known variously as dash, chai, or bonsella) became necessary to obtain even the most basic services. The Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi expressed his disillusionment with African politics in his novel Jagua Nana. When the heroine’s boyfriend Freddie states, “I wan’ money quick-quick; an’ politics is de only hope,” she replies, “No Freddie. I no wan’ you to win. . . . Politics not for you, Freddie. You got education. You got culture. You’re a gentleman an’ proud. Politics be a game for dog. And in dis Lagos, is a rough game. De roughest game in de whole worl’. Is smell an’ dirty an’ you too clean an’ sweet.”3 Finally, population growth, which has hindered economic growth more severely than anything else in the new nations of Asia and Africa, became a serious problem and crippled efforts to build modern economies. By the mid-1980s, annual population growth averaged nearly 3 percent throughout Africa, the highest rate of any continent. Drought conditions and the inexorable spread of the Sahara (usually known as desertification, a condition caused partly by overpopulation) have led to widespread hunger and starvation, first in West African countries such as Niger and Mali and then in Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan. Despite global efforts to provide food, millions are in danger of starvation and malnutrition, and countless others have fled to neighboring countries in search of sustenance. In recent years, the spread of AIDS in Africa has reached epidemic proportions. According to one estimate, one-third of the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa is infected with the virus, including a high percentage of the urban middle class. Over 75 percent of the AIDS cases reported around the world are on the continent of Africa. Some observers estimate that without measures to curtail the effects of the disease, it will have a significant impact on several African countries by reducing population growth, which is presently predicted to increase throughout the continent by at least 300 million in the next fifteen years. Poverty is endemic in Africa, particularly among the three-quarters of the population still living off the land. Urban areas have grown tremendously, but as in much of Asia, most are surrounded by massive squatter settlements of rural peoples who had fled to the cities in search of a better life. The expansion of the cities has overwhelmed fragile transportation and sanitation systems and led to rising pollution and perpetual traffic jams, while millions are forced to live without water and electricity. Meanwhile, the fortunate few (all too often government officials on the take) live the high life and emulate the consumerism of the West (in a particularly expressive phrase, the rich in many East African countries are know as wabenzi, or “Mercedes-Benz people”).