Africa 1980–2010: Tragedies, Triumphs, and Challenges

Sylvie Kandé – SUNY Old Westbury

The years 1980 to 2010 saw Africa transitioning from the era of decolonization to that of globalization. Two key events that best illustrate this transition are the creation of the state of Namibia in 1989, which brought an end to one century of colonial domination, and the African leaders’ adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) at the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 an agenda endorsed by 180 members states for the eradication of extreme poverty by 2015.

Change in Africa has proceeded at an uneven pace and taken various and often contradictory forms, given the continent’s profound political, economic, and cultural disparities. Encompassing everything from tragedies to triumphs and presenting a number of major challenges, these thirty years in the African experience resist any overarching characterization. On the one hand, some of the increased misery of the recent past which translated, in the wake of the major economic crisis of the 1980s, into recurrent food and water shortages, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, unemployment, and limited access to primary education partially gave way, at the turn of the twenty–first century, to coherent efforts to rebuild national economies after costly civil wars and establish new democracies. On the other, Africa still harbors thirty–five out of the fifty less developed countries, and adult life expectancy averages forty–six years. The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day (mostly women) rose from 217 million in 1990 to 290 million in 2000, with a slight decrease in the last decade. Twenty–eight African countries have been at war since 1980, and one–third of Africa’s leadership in 2010 still emanates from the army or a rebellion. According to Africa Humanitarian Action, in 2007 there were seventeen million internally displaced people and five million refugees (again, mostly women).

Moreover, if the 2005 decision made by the G8 to reduce Africa’s debt by $40 billion brought relief to fourteen countries, the 2008–2009 global economic crisis negatively affected oil–producing nations (such as Gabon and Nigeria) and those with reputable stock markets (such as Morocco, Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Uganda, and South Africa); it also generated food riots in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Senegal, and Somalia.

Often seen as exceptional situations, African tragedies, triumphs, and challenges are better understood as local responses to problems of planetary dimensions and reflect the experience of people living outside of the center of world economy (the United States, the European Union, China and Japan). Research suggests, for instance, that the sub–Saharan droughts of the 1970s and 1980s were caused by Western countries’ industrial pollution, which drove the rain belt away from the Sahel. Similarly, when the Cold War fought by proxies, among which African countries figured prominently–ended, Africa lost strategic importance in international affairs. This trend has recently been reversed by the West's growing interest in African oil–producing countries and China's repositioning as Africa's second commercial partner, right behind the United States.

Obviously, "Tragedy," "Triumph," and "Challenge" are not stable and mutually exclusive categories but represent shifting signposts on a continuum of collective accomplishments. Remarkably, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda coincided with the first nonracial elections in South Africa. For all its horror, it has shifted the study of conflicts in Africa, until then too often attributed to "ethnic" motivations, to their real causes that generally stem from larger economic, political, and environmental issues, including tensions due to disputed access to scarce land resources. Some donors now insist on preventive "conflict education," and truth commissions are established to attempt to both document and heal traumas, while indigenous institutions for peace preservation are also more readily called upon to repair the damaged social fabric.

Africans have also used the threshold of 2000 as an opportunity to claim anew a legitimate place in world history and to fight for their right to self–representation. While Africa's artistic and literary production now enjoys international acclaim, the continent also offers insights into one of the major issues of the postcolonial era–namely, the redefinition of modernity to accommodate "other" personal, religious, or cultural identities: debates around African Islam, métissage (hybridity), and gender have thus multiplied.


Social Challenges

With 60 percent of its population under the age of twenty, Africa has the most youthful population in the world; it is also the fastest growing, due to the region's high fertility ratio (5.5 children per woman). Yet infant mortality also remains very high, with more than one in every five children dying before his/her fifth birthday. Extreme poverty, malnutrition, diseases, and armed conflicts are at the root of these preventable deaths. Twelve million children in sub–Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS, which further jeopardizes these orphans' chance of survival. Casualties in a new type of war that involves civilian populations, children have also been recruited as child soldiers—in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda most notably. Those wars foster a culture of impunity in which sexual violence is commonly used as a weapon, even against children. It is estimated that in Darfur, one–third of the rape victims among the two million displaced people are children. Rapes, in turn, contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to the Hunger Task Force, undernourishment rates in sub–Saharan Africa have reached 40 percent, the highest in the world. In addition, fifty thousand water supply points in rural areas have fallen into disrepair; and malaria kills three thousand children every day. With thirty–eight million children of primary school age currently out of school, universal primary education, one of the main MDGs, is not likely to be achieved in Africa by 2015.

The expansion of immunization programs, the use of insecticide–treated bed nets, the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding practices for babies up to six months of age, and the prescription of antiretroviral medication to prevent maternal transmission of HIV have already resulted in an overall decline of mortality by 14 percent between 1990 and 2006. Notably, measles deaths have dropped by 90 percent since 2003. Yet funds are urgently needed for the completion of malaria and AIDS vaccines, whose clinical trials have begun in Gambia and South Africa, respectively.

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Armed Conflicts

The roots of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are found in the transformation of an economic and social distinction between the Hutu (peasants) and the Tutsi (cattle herders) into a deep–seated ethnic antagonism during the colonial occupation of the region. Indeed, Germans and Belgians in turn enlisted an elite that they identified as Tutsi in order to contain the Hutu majority. In the pre–independence years, the Hutu, backed by the Belgians, fought for majority rule. As political parties were ethnically based, large numbers of Tutsi, regardless of their status and political opinions, were killed in the process (in 1959 and 1960, most notably) or went into exile in Burundi, Tanganyika (Tanzania), and Uganda. Regional conflicts among the Hutu led to the 1973 coup organized by Joseph Habyarimana, a Hutu from northern Rwanda. In response to the attacks launched from Uganda by Tutsi exiles, organized by 1990 into an army called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Habyarimana began training Hutu militias for the elimination of Rwandan Tutsi and their Hutu allies. Yet he was forced by international pressure to prepare for multiparty elections and limited power sharing with the RPF: his subsequent ratification of the 1993 Arusha Accords alienated him from his conservative base.

The 1993 assassination of Burundi's Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was followed by announcements on the Rwandan Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines of an imminent massacre of Tutsi. As soon as Habyarimana's plane was shot down over Kigali airport, this carefully planned operation began, gathered momentum among the civilians, and left, after one hundred days, approximately one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu dead. The genocide ended with the RPF's occupation of Kigali. A French–speaking Hutu president, Pasteur Bizimungu, was soon elected, and collaborated until 2000 with Paul Kagame, the English–speaking Tutsi leader of RPF. Meanwhile, the militias and two million Hutu civilians had fled to eastern Zaire, where they were reached by the RPF army in 1995. Mobutu, president of Zaire and protector of the Hutu refugees, was soon defeated by Laurent Kabila, who initially supported the RPF. After the assassination of Kabila, who had changed the name of his country to Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), his son, Joseph Kabila, was elected president in 2006.

From 1998 to 2003 seven countries became involved—largely because of Congo's mineral wealth and, specifically, its coltan used in the production of cellular phones—in an underreported "African World War." In spite of several settlements, the conflict still rages on, with for instance the 2009 U.N.–backed joint military offensive Congo–Rwanda against FDLR, a Hutu militia, allegedly responsible for the 1994 genocide. The current death toll in the Congo nears six million. Tragically, the international community has failed to respond adequately to these successive humanitarian crises.

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Economic Issues

Often dubbed a new form of slavery, Africa's debt to foreign creditors such as governments or banks was contracted starting in the mid–1960s, either under pressure from donors, by despotic regimes in exchange for their participation in the Cold War, or by the South African apartheid regime for its regional wars. Indebtedness became chronic in the 1970s. As repayment had to be made in foreign currency, both the sharp rise of import costs, linked to the price of oil, and the vagaries of agricultural exports have made this debt unsustainable for African nations.

Structural adjustment refers to a series of policies devised by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to offer developing economies new loans or reduced interest rates on existing loans with conditions that promote privatization, deregulation, and reduction of trade barriers. Imposing drastic reductions—notably in governmental spending on health care, education, and public housing—and encouraging foreign investment mostly in mining, these programs came under criticism for their role in worsening poverty. In the late 1990s they were replaced by the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, an initiative aimed at encouraging countries' participation in their debt management.

By 1998, however, only five African countries had qualified for a collective debt relief of $6.5 billion under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, and only Uganda had reached the completion point and received $650 million in debt reduction. Debt cancellation is increasingly seen as the decisive step toward Africa's effective economic growth.

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Decolonization: Namibia

The 1980s saw the end of colonial occupation with the independence of South West Africa. Its road to independence took the form of a protracted war, waged over three decades (1960–1988) at the cost of at least twenty thousand lives. Reflective of the international power struggle during the Cold War, this war was tied to both the independence in Angola and the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa.

A region rich in diamonds, copper, and uranium, South West Africa was ruled since 1915 by South Africa and subjected to apartheid, though it was a United Nations Trust Territory. In 1960 the South–West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) launched a campaign of guerrilla activities against the South African occupation of the land in defiance of the United Nations resolution. Angola's 1975 declaration of independence was soon followed by the defeat of South African forces, which supported the Angolan UNITA party. South Africans endured another defeat at the 1988 battle of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola. U.S. mediation led to a peace agreement, according to which South Africa would end its illegal occupation of South West Africa. SWAPO won the 1989 elections, and Sam Nujoma became the first president of the newly independent nation, Namibia.

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The End of Apartheid

The mineral revolution that took place in the 1870s and 1880s in southern Africa increased the latent conflicts, not only between the African majority and the white community, but also between the Boer and the English settlers. By 1910 the Union of South Africa, having obtained internal self–government, began devising segregationist policies to maintain white domination over mining and the land. Black South Africans resisted the job color bar, restrictions put on their occupation of the land, and the abolition of voting rights in parliamentary elections. They also founded powerful trade unions as well as the first modern African nationalist party, the African National Congress (ANC) in 1912.

In 1948, the National Party institutionalized the apartheid system, which aimed at making black South Africans foreigners in 86 percent of their own country. As illustrated by major events such as the ANC Defiance Campaign (1952), the Sharpeville massacre (1960), and the Soweto uprising (1976), black resistance increased. The three main anti–apartheid organizations—the ANC, the Pan–Africanist Congress, and the Black Consciousness Movement—were banned. When the ANC adopted the principle of armed resistance, Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were condemned to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy (1964).

South Africa, which had enjoyed a prosperous economy until the 1970s, was weakened by Portugal's withdrawal from Angola and Mozambique and began implementing reforms while heightening political repression. In 1985 Prime Minister P. W. Botha declared a state of emergency. By 1987 South Africa, crippled by internal boycotts, strikes, and the black majority's poverty, as well as by international disinvestment, had become one of the world's weakest economies. In addition, South Africa lost Namibia. In 1990 Botha's successor, F. W. de Klerk, started negotiations to repeal the apartheid laws and released Nelson Mandela, the iconic leader of the anti–apartheid struggle, after twenty–seven years of imprisonment.

Elected president in the first nonracial elections (1994), Mandela sought to build a multiracial society and to end civil strife through institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which encouraged perpetrators to publicly acknowledge their apartheid–related crimes. Once in power, the ANC did not implement the socialist program announced in the party's constitutive document, the Freedom Charter, but opted for a capitalist economy. In spite of the government's effort since 1994 to provide people with basic necessities, unemployment has reached 23.4 percent and protests against poor housing conditions are both frequent and violent. South Africa has the largest number of HIV infections in the world (with 58 percent of the patients deprived of antiretroviral therapy), but recent statistics seem to indicate a decline in new cases.

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Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was one of the three hundred participants, along with President Obama's father, in a scholarship program designed to bring Kenyan students to American universities. Upon her return to Kenya, she obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in 1971 and became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to hold both a doctorate degree and a high–ranking academic position. Her associative activities, coupled with her previous experience in the United States, raised her consciousness about sustainability. In the late 1970s, she founded the Green Belt Movement, a non–governmental organization that encouraged rural women to plant native trees to reverse soil erosion in a country where only 2 percent of the indigenous forest remained. Indeed, Maathai's trademark has been an uncommon determination to link environmental issues to the fight against poverty, and for women's rights and democracy.

In the 1980s and '90s, while political harassment against Maathai increased, so did her international repute. Offered a job by Norwegian donors and money from the U.N. Voluntary Fund for Women, she expanded the Green Belt Movement, providing financial compensation to women participants. Her contribution to the third World Conference on Women, held in Nairobi in 1985, led to the establishment of a Pan African Green Belt Network, designed to assist other African countries in their environmental conservation efforts. Maathai saved Nairobi's Uhuru Park, threatened by the construction of the sixty–story Kenya Times Media Trust complex. Two years later, she was jailed for having revealed a list of projected political assassinations that included her name.

Many of her subsequent efforts were devoted to reconciling the opposition parties for Kenya's first multiparty elections in 1992 and the second in 1997. Co–chair of the Jubilee 2000 international campaign for debt cancellation in Africa, she simultaneously crushed two major governmental attempts at privatizing Kenya's public land. In 2002 she ran successfully for the National Rainbow Coalition against KANU (Kenya African National Union). From 2003 to 2005 she served as assistant minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. She then became the first president of the African Union's Economic, Social and Cultural Council and was involved in several U.N. initiatives concerning the Congo Basin ecosystem, the world's desertification, and tree planting. Her autobiography, Unbowed, was published in 2006, and a documentary on her life and work, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, was released in 2008. The recipient of numerous awards, Wangari Maathai was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (2004). By insisting on the cyclical causality linking environmental degradation, food insecurity, war, and further soil degradation, she helped redefine the concept of peace and that of the Nobel Peace Prize itself.

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The African Union

In 1963 the thirty–two heads of newly independent states created, in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), an organization inspired by Kwame Nkrumah's vision of the United States of Africa. Its goal was to decolonize the rest of the African colonies, fight apartheid, and promote cultural unity on the continent. Lacking an armed force to enforce decisions and committed to the principle of non–interference with national sovereignty, the OAU was powerless to resolve crises in Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. Yet it provided support for anti–colonial militants of Southern Africa in exile. It also provided the structure for the launching of the African Development Bank in 1967, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, and the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) in 1980. While SADCC and ECOWAS have both been instrumental in negotiating development loans, in 1990 ECOWAS launched ECOMOG, a peacekeeping force known for its interventions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, and Rwanda.

In 2002 the OAU was replaced by the African Union, an intergovernmental organization that brought together fifty–two states with the goals of promoting continental integration, peace, democracy, and human rights, and fighting poverty and corruption. It is the only international organization that recognizes the right to intervene in a member state for humanitarian reasons. Its first military interventions consisted of a peacekeeping mission in Burundi, the Sudan, Somalia, and the Comores. Among the various documents adopted by the AU, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance as well as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) stand prominently. The latter body concerns itself more specifically with issues of sustainability and Africa's integration in the global economy.

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Although Africans have always migrated (voluntarily or not) to other regions of the world, the volume and patterns of those migrations have greatly changed in the postcolonial era. In the 1960s and the '70s, educated (and mostly male) Africans came to the metropolises as students, and large numbers of their compatriots were brought in to serve as a cheap industrial labor force. Restrictive emigration policies for workers, asylum seekers, and refugees were implemented in the late 1970s, when Europe completed the modernization of its infrastructure. Starting in the 1980s, African immigration to industrialized countries, although condemned in the official discourse, rose rapidly: a wave of computerization created a large demand for both menial jobs frowned upon by European nationals and for highly skilled positions, such as software specialists, engineers, and doctors; simultaneously, African economies felt the burden of structural adjustment, wars, and natural disasters.

Adjusting to those changes, Africans began diversifying their destinations: West African French–speaking migrants went to Italy, Germany, Spain, or the United States; Egyptians to the Persian Gulf; and some Nigerian traders to China. Students often chose to attend American universities that offered substantial scholarships. In addition, migrants reconverted to self–employment in the commercial sector, to avoid the risks and frustrations of menial wage–labor. In keeping with their traditional involvement in local and long–distance commerce, African women have turned to international migrations: they import both products in high demand among African expatriates and institutions such as the tontine, an alternative banking system. Professional women have also taken to migrating on their own: nurses and doctors from Nigeria and Ghana find jobs in Saudi Arabia, or in the United States and Great Britain, respectively. As for traffickers, they have devised ever bolder schemes to smuggle Africans into Western countries, such as loading them onto small fishing boats for perilous crossings from Senegal to Spain.

Since its creation in 1993, the European Union struggles with its reliance on immigration to palliate the labor shortage caused by an aging population; its wish to regulate the migratory flows, especially those originating from Africa; and its intention to promote free circulation of labor within its borders. The numerous immigration–related human rights abuses within the E.U. are due to a lack of a unified European policy regarding immigration and to racism that equates southern immigration with an invasion. In reality, Africans represent in Europe a small percentage of all migrants (11 percent for France in 2004, for instance.) Though even fewer Africans settle in the United States, their ranks have swollen since the 1990s. Making up then 1.8 percent of all migrants, they were 3.7 percent in 2007. A highly educated group, they are generally perceived as law–abiding individuals whose ability to speak English is an asset for integration.

Emigration deprives Africa of an estimated 300,000 people per year, of whom 20,000 are highly skilled professionals. Brain drain, particularly severe in the medical domain, costs Africa $4 billion in expert replacement per year. Thus African nations face a multilayered challenge: they must curb emigration by reducing unemployment and offering attractive living conditions to their citizens; tap into the yearly $19 billion of remittances sent home by sub–Saharan migrants (which represents 2.5 percent of the GDP, and more than foreign direct investment); and protect their nationals abroad from exploitation, xenophobia, and police brutality. Furthermore, better inter–African coordination is needed, as the largest African migrations take place within Africa itself.

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The Digital Revolution

Africa's high percentage of young people, its rate of urbanization (estimated at 35 percent in the first decade of the twenty–first century, 40 percent in 2015 and 50 percent in 2050), and its global consciousness are the main reasons for the successful expansion of the NICTs on the continent. For instance, the number of subscriptions to cellular phone services went from 72,000 in 1995 to 400 million in 2010, and the 2006 growth in mobile phone equipment was the highest in the world. Moreover, cooperation between private companies and states has recently enabled the extension of cellular networks into rural areas. Competition among operators is lowering the cost of subscriptions for consumers while diversifying the range of services available to them, with, notably, the recent development of the capability to pay bills or do banking operations via mobile phone.

Though slower to penetrate the African market, the Internet has generated spectacular interest. The installation of costly equipment often competes with other priorities and depends on the existence of multiple sources of funding (private donors, public entities, and agencies such as UNESCO or the American Leland Initiative). Its use supposes a certain literacy rate, income level, and free time. As a result, in 2009 only 7 percent of the African population had Internet access, mostly in urban centers and mostly through three specific channels – the government, the associations, and the cybercafés. Yet the overall rate of connections between the late 1990s and 2005 has multiplied by a factor of 5.

Recent studies show that a huge potential market for broadband access exists in Kenya, Egypt, and Nigeria. Wireless solutions and the commercialization of computers at less than $200 should also popularize the use of the Internet. In July 2009 Seacom completed its connection of the East Coast and South Africa with Europe and Asia, with a 10,565–mile–long sub–marine fiber–optic cable at a cost of $700 million. Several operators are at work on ten similar projects of undersea cable connectors. The 2010 World Cup, in South Africa, has been a powerful motivator for both operators and consumers: in fact, the South African MTN paid $65 million for the rights to the multimedia contents of that event, accessible through the Internet and multimedia phones.

Numerous e–initiatives have already emerged in Africa: for instance, skilled nationals living abroad are on occasion virtually connected with compatriots at home for training or conference purposes, and since 1995 the Internet in Uganda conveys information to rural centers about new HIV/AIDS treatments.

However, these technologies do not guarantee development or democracy, even with lower costs and the broadcast of unhindered personal expression. The push for African governments to disengage from the installation of both infrastructure and networks implies increased dependence on foreign aid. Additionally, the spread of more or less objective representations of the Western lifestyle may widen the perceived gap between Africa and the rest of the world, between rural and urban settings, and may ultimately encourage extroversion. Thus, the challenge for Africa is to ponder the relevance of regulating cyberspace; to train active users who can deal with ideologically or culturally objectionable material; and to generate African content to fill existing lacunae or counteract stereotypical views of the continent.

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