by Mark G. Wentling
My friends say I was born and raised in Kansas, but I was made in Africa.
I first stepped on the continent in 1970 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo and stayed much longer than expected, serving with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and working with non-governmental organizations across the continent. I ended up knowing firsthand in varying degrees each of Africa’s 54 countries.
Most Americans know little about Africa, a continent of 54 distinct independent countries, more than one-quarter of all members of the United Nations. Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing the world’s highest urbanization and population growth rates.
Africa’s population, now estimated at 1.2 billion with 50% under the age of 19, is projected to surpass that of China or India in a couple of years. This huge growth will be achieved in spite of high infant and child mortality rates. Nigeria will have more people than the U.S. in 2050, when it will be the third most populated country in the world.
Africa is so large geographically that the U.S., China, India, and all of Europe could fit within its borders. Africa is also a complex mosaic of over 2,000 ethnic groups that speak a multitude of languages and dialects and practice a vast variety of customs.
Africa contains a large number of diverse ecological zones –deserts, savanna, dense jungles, and the snows of the lofty 19,341-feet height of Mount Kilimanjaro. It is the only continent that stretches from northern to southern temperate climate zones.
The vast majority of African countries became independent in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The legacy of their former colonial masters still has a large influence and European languages (English, French, Portuguese and Spanish) have become official languages for many countries. The artificial borders created by the colonial powers continue to be the cause of tension.
Except for oil, some minerals (bauxite, chromium, cobalt, coltan, platinum, uranium) and the fight against terrorism, to my mind, U.S. strategic interests in Africa are minimal. The U.S.’s genuine main interest is of a humanitarian nature and linked to the fact that over 12 percent of its population can trace its origins to Africa. The practice of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries has left a heavy legacy on the U.S. as well as on large swaths of Africa. Of course, the whole world is interested in Africa because it is considered to be the cradle of humankind.
Current U.S. foreign policy objectives in Africa are focused on enhancing economic ties and countering violent extremists. The U.S. is also watchful of inroads by China and Russia, and the adherence of African national governments to democratic principles. USAID’s current policy is to assist countries achieve a ‘Journey of Self-Reliance.’
Africa: A Mixed Bag of Good and Bad
Long running conflicts in Africa are concentrated in a few countries: a sporadic but very bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a protracted war in Sudan and now South Sudan, and a failed state in Somalia since 1991. Some long-standing civil wars—Angola, Mozambique, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—ended years ago. Some very deadly but short-lived conflicts—the brutal Ethiopia-Eritrea border war in 1998-2000, the Somali invasion of Ethiopia in 1977, the Biafra independence movement in Nigeria in the 1960s, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and the recently ended civil war in Côté d’Ivoire are hopefully part of Africa’s troubled past.
The U.S. has provided military and development aid support to counter increases in the violent terrorist activities committed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in western Africa and Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa. And, more recently the U.S. has expressed concerns about terrorist acts in the far-northern part of Mozambique.
U.S. diplomats and others are also troubled over sectarian violence in the Central African Republic and the murderous actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria. In addition, growing organized crime and the international drug trade are worrisome as are concerns about the spread of new diseases originating in Africa.
In addition, the Arab Spring in North Africa has resulted in conflict in Egypt, terrorist attacks in Tunisia, and a virtual failed state in Libya. Currently, Burkina Faso is suffering from the aftermath of a popular insurrection, an attempted military coup and an increasing number of violent attacks perpetrated by terrorist groups. And like the rest of the world, Africa is afflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the positive side, a number of African countries have been free of significant conflict since gaining independence. Among these countries are Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana, and Morocco.
There is some good economic news. Over the past decade or so, African countries have on average experienced an annual five percent Gross Domestic Product growth rate, even during the 2007-2009 economic recession in the West. During this same period of time, the annual GDP growth rate in the U.S was less than half this amount. There has also been an impressive rise in foreign investment, although much is from China, which is playing a huge role in Africa.
Sadly, the international economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 virus pandemic and a fall in oil prices are likely to reverse this economic growth trend. Moreover, Africa is ill-prepared to deal with the devastating impact of the pandemic on its health, economic and political systems. The pandemic could deal something of a final knock-out blow to the more fragile countries, especially those countries already highly debt stressed.
Despite all the challenges, there have been dramatic increases in the percentage of children attending school. However, there is a pressing need to improve the quality of education and classroom conditions, once a focus of USAID programs in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. History has shown that no country in the world can move to higher stages of development until a majority of its population has benefitted from quality primary school education; illiteracy in Africa remains high, especially among rural women.
Although Ebola and HIV/AIDS have previously dominated the health news out of Africa, there has been progress on many fronts. The U.S. government’s PEPFAR program is helping turn the tide against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Polio, with huge financial backing from Rotary International, has been reduced to almost zero. Lesser-known diseases such as Guinea worm (dracunculiasis) are now confined to a small number of isolated locations, and progress is being made in rolling back Africa’s biggest killer, malaria, with help from the U.S. government’s President’s Malaria Initiative. Much work remains to be done to ensure safe drinking water and good sanitation for millions of Africans. In 1960, the average life expectancy in Africa was 40 years while an African born in 2020 can expect on the average to live to 63 years.
What Does the Future Hold for Africa?
But what about the future of Africa? Rapid population growth has huge implications for the continent, causing a “youth-bulge” that leads to greater political instability and provides foot soldiers for terrorist groups. USAID is looking for ways to alleviate these pressures with a focus on the real litmus test of development, job creation.
While Africa is urbanizing rapidly, too much of that urban growth is caused by the expansion of slums. And the movement from farms to cities is placing more pressure on the food supply. Most African countries are currently net importers of food.
Climate change is another concern; many experts believe tropical areas of the world will be more impacted than temperate zones. Already, rising sea levels have devastated coastal communities and greater variability in rainfall poses a major challenge for farmers. Increasing household resilience to climate shocks is another focus of USAID programs I have worked with in Africa.
African national economies remain heavily dependent on the export of a single commodity such as oil, other minerals and specific export crops. African economies need to diversify, reduce transportation costs, and facilitate cross-border trade. Tourism will remain important in a number of African countries and should become a growing industry in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era.
It is estimated that Africa has 60 percent of the world’s agriculturally productive land. If properly developed and managed, and if Africa improves its use of agricultural inputs and increases crop irrigation, it has the potential to not only feed everyone on the continent but become a major food exporter. This will require major efforts to resolve land tenure issues and raise soil fertility so higher crop yields can be achieved. USAID’s Feed the Future and Global Food Security Strategy initiatives focus on boosting agricultural productivity.
Africa as a region has the lowest average crop yields in the world; 65 percent of its soils are estimated to be degraded. At the same time, rapid deforestation and the over-grazing of pasture lands are major problems. It is difficult to build a rising standard of living on a falling level of soil fertility and land productivity. In the meantime, too many Africans remain hungry; up to 40 percent of children in many African countries suffer permanent damage caused by stunting.
Many African countries have not measured up when it comes to democratic governance, the development of civil society, building strong institutions, and combatting corruption. Internal political conflicts and gross economic mismanagement have been too common in Africa. The continent will never fully succeed until more countries make the transition to good governance, social harmony, and political stability. USAID also works in this area, supporting democracy, human rights and good governance.
Many people claim the practice of democracy is one of the answers to Africa’s development challenges. However, a democratic system is not possible where a high percentage of the people are unschooled and agrarian-based. An uneducated public is easily manipulated by unscrupulous wealthy politicians. Most elections held in Africa are a sham and costly in monetary terms. Recently, the thin veneer of democracy in Africa has grown thinner as power-greedy leaders work to extend their time in office.
The upsurge in terrorism and religious extremism contribute to an increase in the number of internally displaced persons and refugees, now estimated at 20 million in Africa. It is feared that the COVID-19 pandemic will kill many people who are crowded together in refugee camps. USAID is committed to leading quick responses to humanitarian crises such as these.
In the UN Development Program’s 2019 Human Development Index, 32 of the 35 countries categorized as the least developed in the world are in Africa. Nine countries ranked (181 to 189) at the bottom of the list are in Africa. These sad statistics underscore that Africa is the world’s poorest and least developed continent with the highest concentration of poverty.
It is chilling to recognize that far too many Africans are locked in a daily struggle for survival, living on average on about 70 U.S. cents per day. And the COVID-19 pandemic could increase the number of Africans living below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. These harsh facts underscore the many daunting challenges facing most African countries.
There is much work to do and no time to lose. Every effort needs to be made to prevent fragile African countries from becoming failed states. If Africa is to find a better way forward, it must have competent and honest leadership. Africa needs leaders who put the best interests of their country and people ahead of their own personal interests.
Moreover, these leaders must not have blood on their hands or big bank accounts abroad. Foreign diplomats and others should do all they can to promote and insist on such national leadership. “Tough love” should be a hallmark of all diplomatic relations with African leaders. Without this kind of genuine leadership, Africa will never have the kind of good governance it needs to advance. I believe that with such competent, honest leadership combined with much goodwill from the rest of the world, Africa can overcome its many challenges, advance quickly and achieve a higher stage of development in the decades ahead.
Mark Wentling first arrived in Togo in 1970 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After serving as Peace Corps Director in Gabon and Niger, he began working for USAID in Niger in 1977, and served as the principal USAID officer in Guinea, Togo/Benin, Angola, Somalia and Tanzania. Following retirement in 1996, Mark continued to work for USAID as an advisor for the Great Lakes, then with USAID Missions in Zambia, Malawi, Guinea, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali. He has also worked with CARE and World Vision in Niger and Mozambique. These postings allowed him to cover all of Africa, leading to the publication in August of the first book of his three-volume, Africa Memoir, 50 Years, 54 Countries, One American Life.