In four decades as a correspondent in Africa, I have driven and flown some 2 million kilometers throughout the continent. A lot has changed since I first arrived, but much has stayed the same. My departure is bittersweet.
A destructive pandemic is the last thing Africa needs. After all the civil wars, famines and natural disasters it has been struck by in the past decades, coronavirus is now spreading across the continent – one that is worse prepared than any other for a health crisis of this magnitude.
It is difficult to predict the destruction that will ultimately be wrought by the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Africa, with the apex of this wave of infection expected in July. Experts are concerned that it could lead to the collapse of already rickety social and health care systems. Furthermore, with millions of poor unable to feed their families as a result of lockdown restrictions, revolts could be the result.
For many African countries, COVID-19 may also spell the end to the economic gains they have made in recent years. There is, in short, a dark cloud hanging over that part of the Earth that I visited for the first time some four decades ago. I had imagined a different kind of departure when I finally finished my tenure as an Africa correspondent. And I have mixed feelings as I look back.
We had actually wanted to build a small cultural house in the village of Longido, a place to learn about the Massai, the semi-nomadic people that no longer has a place in modern Tanzania. We were a group of nine young people from Germany, activists who were concerned about the Third World, as it was disparagingly called back then in 1980. We wanted to save Africa.
Beneath the withering sun, we produced mud bricks for the structure we wanted to build, but soon realized that not a single local was interested in helping us. In their eyes, we were naïve do-gooders who wanted to indulge them with a meaningless project.
The idea, though, had come from a member of the Massai who lived in the village, from Esto Mollel, who was studying sociology in Australia and who had come up with ambitious development plans for his poverty stricken home region in northern Tanzania: streets, clinics, dams and more. The cultural center was to be just the beginning.
Only Modest Advances
Ultimately, our efforts did not produce a center for the Massai, but a chicken coop in Esto Mollel’s yard. He became a good friend and was my first Mwalimu, a teacher who explained Africa to me. Esto died in January 2000 at the age of 52. The chicken coop, though, is still standing, right next to his grave. When I examined its decaying walls in December, it struck me as a symbol for Africa’s development, for a continent that had such high expectations once the colonial era began to crumble in the 1950s – and which has made only modest advances in the seven decades since.
The first place I experienced the perpetual back-and-forth between optimism and pessimism that would be my companion for four decades was here in Longido. At the time, Longido was a nondescript backwater with 2,000 residents and two watering holes. There was no phone service, no electricity and no running water. Now, the population is seven times greater, there is drinking water, electricity, gas stations and a small clinic. There are also now a dozen bars, a number of social conflicts, greater wealth for a few and deeper poverty for many.
The number of elementary school children in the local school has almost doubled to 1,118 since 1980. But the classrooms are just as poorly equipped as they have always been, with primitive desks and wooden benches, a cracked slate chalkboard, windows with no glass and a hot tin roof.
A Misleading Question
“We have a good curriculum, but no materials,” says Julieth Godfrey, a 57-year-old math teacher. She points to a mural in the schoolyard depicting a laptop, labeled in Kisuaheli: “skrini,” screen; “kibodi,” keyboard; “waya,” cord. For the students at the school, computers only exist as a drawing. The school itself has just a single computer, and it is used exclusively by school administrators, says Godfrey. “It is said that education is the best way to defeat poverty, but we are a long way from that goal.”
Longido is a perfect place to examine the paradox that can be seen across Africa: The continent has made great strides, but it has remained stuck in place all the same.
In the last four decades, I have flown and driven around 2 million kilometers inside Africa and reported from more than 50 countries. And I am often asked: Have things improved across the continent during the time you have been there? Or are things continually growing worse, as one so often hears? My answer is always the same: Both.
The framing of the question itself, though, is misleading. Africa is often viewed from afar as a single country, as a monolithic hotbed of crisis instead of as an extremely diverse region of 2,000 languages and 54 countries that have developed in divergent ways. There are, to be sure, a handful of so-called “failed states” that have been torn apart by civil war, like Somalia. There are countries like Kenya that somehow manage to get by. But there are also politically stable countries like Namibia and Ghana, and there is a group of countries that are economic success stories, including Botswana, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Everywhere, though, millions of Africans continue to struggle to overcome the same problems: poverty, unemployment, disease, the incompetence of a corrupt elite and competition for a limited amount of resources, a clash which is becoming worse as population growth and climate change continue apace. In many areas – from literacy to the number of dentists per capita – Africa is well behind the rest of the world.
I have never been one to write off Africa as a continent beset by war and catastrophe. At the same time, though, I have never belonged to those who sugarcoat the situation in Africa, those who continually blame the region’s struggles on destructive foreign powers or who overhype small success stories as the beginning of a vast upsurge. I have always sought to remain an “Afro-realist,” positioning myself between the prophets of doom and the hopeless romantics. My motto: The situation is serious, but by no means hopeless.
No Longer Recognizable
Africa has enormous potential. It is rich in natural resources and is also home to large areas of fertile farmland that are underused. Furthermore, it has a young, rapidly growing population. By 2050, when an estimated 2.5 billion people will live in Africa, the continent will be home to one in four people in the world. It is a dynamic that neighboring Europe, especially, won’t be able to ignore or suppress any longer. The EU will ultimately have to abandon its fortress mentality and pursue real cooperation – beyond its fears of an alleged “flood” of migrants and refugees.
The distorted image that the world at large has of Africa continues to be the product of stereotypes rooted in the colonial era. They ignore the significant developments that have been made in recent years. Tanzania, the country in which I was “initiated” as an Africa correspondent, provides a vivid example.
The economic capital of Dar es Salaam is no longer recognizable as the sleepy, provincial city it was back in 1980. It has transformed into a modern metropolis of more than 5 million: bustling, loud, suffocating in traffic and bursting with vitality. The center has become an imposing collection of skyscrapers surrounding the churches built back when it was a German colony. Those houses of worship used to be the tallest buildings around, but now they look like miniature historical models. The men of the Maasai, who wander through the urban canyons in traditional garb, likewise look like a blast from the past.
Dar es Salaam is on its way to becoming an African megacity and is one of the focal points of the breathtaking transformation that has gripped many countries on the continent since 2000 – a transformation that almost nobody saw coming. A primary driver of that renewal has been rising prices for natural resources, triggering an economic boom in many places. Formerly poverty-stricken countries like Ethiopia experienced growth rates that were at times the highest in the world.
At the same time, the digital revolution has opened new horizons. Forty years ago, I would often search in vain for a landline telephone. Today, almost a billion Africans use mobile devices and smartphones. Many African metropolises now host vibrant IT hubs, with the cashless payment service M-Pesa being perhaps the best example of their achievements, a phone-based service that is now used around the world. The rapid expansion of social media platforms have likewise boosted pro-democracy movements everywhere. Without such communication tools, the overthrow of the dictatorship in Sudan last year would not have been possible.
The heart of Dar es Salaam is home to an ostentatious white structure built in the form of a perfect circle. It is the city’s convention center, and it was funded and built entirely by the Chinese. The gigantic building seems like a symbol of triumphalism in the new race for Africa’s riches – a race that China is winning by a large margin. The new economic giant from East Asia has long since overtaken Africa’s traditional trading partners of Europe and America and is heavily exploiting the continent’s natural resources while flooding its markets with cheap goods. Tanzania, which has been allied with China since the times of Mao, is one of the key countries in Beijing’s economic offensive.
In the eyes of Zitto Kabwe, 43, the convention center is a self-serving gift. “The Chinese now control the entire construction sector in our country,” says Kabwe, an opposition politician. He is wary of what he calls Beijing’s “imperial strategy,” saying it reminds him of the conquering and exploitation at the hands of European colonial powers.
But the Chinese don’t just take, they also give – things like hospitals, schools, roads, rail lines, airports and dams. No matter how one views China’s ruthless expansion, it is difficult to deny that its vast projects have done more for the African economy in the last 20 years than European development aid has in the last 60.
The Benevolent Dictator
The Chinese, development-dictatorship model is becoming more attractive than that offered by the West because in many countries, democracy has not fulfilled the promise of greater prosperity. Several years ago, a politician from Burundi put it bluntly: “Do we need three political parties or three meals a day?”
“Our president thinks the same way. He views democracy as a hurdle to development,” says Kabwe. The Tanzanian president’s name is John Magufuli, but the people refer to him as “the bulldozer,” because of the way he shunts aside incompetent public administrators, goes after tax dodgers and fights against corruption.
Magufuli is an example of perhaps the most significant political development of recent times: the benevolent dictator, a new type of African ruler. He wants to see economic growth, but isn’t particularly interested in democratic principles. He is rolling back civil rights, doesn’t shy away from manipulating elections and will brook no criticism.
Zitto Kabwe has experienced Magufuli’s dictatorial tendencies firsthand. He was locked away for several months on charges of public incitement and has been arrested eight times in just the last four years, he says. In January 2017, he managed to escape an assassination attempt only with a significant stroke of luck. I first met Kabwe when he was still studying economics. In 2005, he became the youngest member of parliament at age 29 and since then has been among the most unyielding critics of the regime.
During a recent meeting in Dar es Salaam, Kabwe made sure that we weren’t under surveillance by secret service agents. He was wearing a charcoal blue suit, not unlike the one worn by the country’s legendary first president Julius Nyerere, whose experiment in creating an African socialism failed dramatically. Following his resignation, democracy and the free-market economy were introduced, and things started to look up.
Enablers in the Northern Hemisphere
“We have been further along in our history,” Kabwe says. “Magufuli has thrown our country back by 40 years, to the time of the single-party regime.”
Zitto Kabwe represents a new generation of politicians who seek prosperity for all and who defend democracy. You can find such people in many African countries – well-educated, cosmopolitan and full of reform ideas. They frequently find themselves confronted with the bitter resistance of the ruling elite, the old, corrupt “big men,” who plunder their countries’ national resources and have numerous enablers in the Northern Hemisphere: commodities traders, arms dealers, tax evaders or bankers who are happy to launder the billions they pilfer.
Abuse of power, poor governance and endemic corruption are the primary causes for the problems Africa faces, and little has changed during my time as a correspondent in Africa. The perhaps greatest disappointment is that the economy of the country I have chosen to be my home, South Africa, has also been destroyed – the country that is by far the wealthiest on the continent and which was so full of confidence under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. It was, in short, a guiding light for Africa. The liberators, however, learned nothing from the post-colonial mistakes. In the years after the yoke of colonialism was thrown off and many countries launched anew, the continent was marked by the aftershocks of independence battles and many young countries experienced nasty military dictatorships funded by their ideological allies in Moscow, Washington or Paris. It currently looks as though history is repeating itself.
When I migrated to South Africa in 1993, it looked as though a new era was at hand. In Berlin, the Wall had fallen and the Cold War was history. The white racist regime of apartheid was forced to capitulate and the call for freedom could be heard across the continent. Soon, though, it became clear that democracy, fought for by broad popular movements, was merely a façade behind which old power structures continued to flourish.
“We need a second liberation, but this time from our autocratic rulers,” says Kabwe, raising his fists like a boxer. He intends to run against Magufuli in the next presidential elections, if the government allows it. “I have been through hell. Nothing can scare me anymore,” Kabwe says later as we are sitting on the terrace of his home. His wife, with their youngest daughter on her arm, says: “I am happy every evening when he comes home alive.”
African solutions for African problems: This is the motto to which the African Union has dedicated itself. With its Agenda 2063, the bloc has set as its goal the development of a vast free-trade zone, an entire continent with no borders that would become the world’s largest integrated economic zone by area. It remains to be seen whether the action plan is just another empty promise. The hurdles from the past are high, with the continent continuing to suffer from the knock-on effects of colonialism: It remains marginalized; has almost no voice on the global, geo-political stage; and it is massively disadvantaged by an unfair economic system. Africa provides raw materials and unprocessed agricultural commodities, with the value being added elsewhere. Furthermore, the continent’s fragile agricultural sector is hurt badly by highly subsidized, cheap imports from the European Union.
On top of that are new, unsettling challenges: Islamist terrorism, which is particularly prevalent in the poverty-stricken Sahel zone; climate change, under which Africa suffers immensely, despite having contributed the least to the phenomenon; and overpopulation in some areas of the continent.
On the other hand, rapid population growth could be a blessing in disguise, as the Asian Tigers demonstrated. A high number of employable young people in the region, combined with a relatively low elderly population and targeted industrial policies, triggered a significant economic upswing, which in turn contributed to lowering the birth rate. The demographic dividend, however, requires improved education policy and population planning – an insight that many African governments are far away from. Indeed, Tanzanian President Magufuli has announced precisely the opposite course, issuing a plea to the women of his country to “set your ovaries free.”
Fate In Their Hands
Many forecasts serve the eternal cliché that Africa will remain the world’s problem child. But if the next generation of leadership in Africa was to finally implement fundamental reforms, Africa could transform into the continent of the future, a vision that the continent’s post-colonialist thought leaders are convinced of. In his book “Afrotopia,” the Senegalese social scientist Felwine Sarr urges his compatriots to overcome their inferiority complex and to take their own fate in their hands.
Sarr discusses a possible return to traditional, environmentally sustainable forms of production and considers alternatives to the Western obsession with growth and destructive predatory capitalism. He even hypothesizes about a civilizational shift aimed at saving our planet – a shift that could get its start in Africa.
For the moment, however, the virus represents an unpredictable danger looming over the continent. You don’t have to be a prophet to predict that the pandemic will further widen the gap between rich nations and poor ones.
China has long since overtaken Africa’s traditional trading partners of Europe and America and is heavily exploiting the continent’s natural resources while flooding its markets with cheap goods.
What remains after 40 years spent on this wonderful, contradictory continent? Thousands of images, memories, encounters, delightful experiences and shattering occurrences. I have reported on civil wars, government overthrows, droughts, famines and epidemics like AIDS and Ebola – and I have written about normal, peaceful day-to-day life. I have spoken with presidents and chiefs, with company executives, religious leaders and myriad simple men and women who master challenging lives with admirable aplomb. I have also encountered hideously nefarious individuals, including military leaders, warlords and mass murderers. When interviewing victims of violence in squalid refugee camps, I frequently found my vocation as journalist to be unsettlingly indecent.
I also had the privilege of taking part in outpourings of joy, such as when dictators like Mobutu (in former Zaire) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) were toppled, or when Sani Abacha of Nigeria succumbed to a heart attack. In South Sudan, I have felt deep disgust for the trigger-happiness and greed of those in power, who are doing all they can to drive the youngest country in the world into ruin.
Two events in the early 1990s will remain unforgotten. That was the decade in which post-colonial Africa’s greatest dream and most horrific nightmare both came true: the end of apartheid in South Africa and the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda.
In spring 1994, as we were celebrating the election of South Africa’s first black president in Nelson Mandela, fully 800,000 people were butchered in the heart of the continent as the international community did nothing. Most of us correspondents did not see this crime against humanity coming, something for which I reproach myself to this day.
To overcome such deeply traumatic experiences, positive events and optimistic images are necessary. There are journalists who have lost their faith in humanity while covering Africa, but this continent is where I found mine: In African hospitality, in their willingness to help and their heartfelt sincerity. In their resilience, their ability to continue despite the most challenging of circumstances. The deep power of their music, their nature deities, their creation myths, the amor fati – this is just a brief selection of the myriad gifts that Africa has given me.
And when I would sit in the dusty offices of fatherly university professors with wrinkled ties and listen to them talk about the centuries-old traditions and history of their continent, I would often find myself thinking – even after decades of having worked here as a correspondent: What do we really know about Africa?