An election in the midst of a ruthless fight against terrorists with no end in sight. Another one under a cloud of cheating. A country pondering the aftermath of a welcome coup against government whose broadly felt inadequacy broke its people’s patience. A popular young president, Nobel Peace Prize, faced with an increasingly violent insurgency.
Some American bells might be set off by such a list, but in Africa you would be more likely to get ready, with a mix of complacency and annoyance, to listen to a well-rehearsed catalogue of the continent’s failure.
And you would not be wrong to be annoyed, because it indicates a certain refusal in many capitals and chanceries to recognize positive change in places too long taken for granted. Revealingly, the same people who take Africa for granted tend to be the know-it-alls about what should be done for the continent, while at the same time, of course, denouncing plain speaking about its real problems.
Allegedly rescuing countries from the bad lots who had replaced the colonial powers, the do-good industry perpetuated African stagnation.
For instance, the bien-pensant class pounced on President Donald Trump when he referred to certain countries in Africa with barracks vulgarity. Yet many inhabitants of the very countries did not disagree with him, only maybe reproached him for not following up. But not following up may be the best thing he could do: Africans are taking charge of their destiny, wrenching it from the predators (native and foreign) who spoiled the era of post-colonialism from the moment it began.
It means as little to generalize about Africa as about anywhere else. Still, multi-nation surveys by the South Africa–based Ichikowitz Family Foundation suggest conventional wisdom, which by definition is usually behind the curve, merits even more skepticism than usual. Optimism prevails among young Africans, despite and beyond all other differences. This is important given the damage done by the dependency on foreign aid and governance advice hoisted on Africans by self-serving mission-creep boondogglers in the U.S. and other Western governments. Allegedly rescuing countries from the bad lots who had replaced the colonial powers, the do-good industry perpetuated African stagnation.
The Africa Youth Survey is most interesting in its underscoring of the desire of a new generation to take charge and assume responsibility for its own well-being. Some examples of attitudes and beliefs encountered by visitors and confirmed by residents:
Optimism about the future prevails across much of the Africa’s rising generations (18- to 30-year olds), regardless of regions (The Ichikowitz Foundation covered some 14 countries in different sub-regions, most but not all Anglophone);
A majority of young Africans see the century as theirs, not in the sense of becoming the center of world power, but in the sense of being full participants in — and beneficiaries of — an era of rising tides;
Moreover, a majority of young Africans define progress as being driven by private enterprise and political liberty (While surely borrowing from good models in Western democracies, the Africans may yet remind us that the truly operative word in liberal democracy is “liberal,” as in liberty);
This, in turn, may be why most young Africans (again, across very different sub-regions) report a strong and positive sense of African identity without surrendering their attachment to their native ground.
These broad characterizations of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation’s detailed survey were first publicized earlier this year in the face of a global fog. But the focus on life-choice attitudes and opinions rather than short-term headline politics renders the study more useful than ordinary political polls, which Africans no less than Americans often respond to with a mix of dissembling and cynicism. As the Foundation’s survey project continues with the possible calming of the pandemic — which has not touched Africa as severely as Europe and America — its value will be tested, as will be collateral annexes added since the initial release.
Ivor Ichikowitz, whose Johannesburg-based Paramount Group, a diversified defense and aerospace firm he founded in 1994, is as original as any successful business entrepreneur, but he is not untypical of the generations that have reached maturity since the end of colonialism. They view opportunity in continental as well as global terms. Where a Nigerian or a Ghanaian (or a South African) of his or her grandparents’ time would think almost always of London for education and advancement, or an Ivoirian or Senegalese would think of Paris, or a Congolese of Brussels, they just as easily think of New York or Berkeley.
Again not to abuse generalizations, but they appreciate what the U.S. is and offers, and it would be well to consider this in contrast to apprehension about China. At first welcomed as a source of capital and infrastructure investment, the Red Chinese are increasingly referred to much the way the old colonial powers were: “they despise us”; “they treat us like n*****s when we visit China”; “their business model is to take the money or the resources and run” — these are the milder comments one typically hears.
If he shares what might be called the “pan-African” attitudes of many of his contemporaries, Ichikowitz also represents in some regards a throwback to the philanthropists of the late 19th century. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Cecil Rhodes (since this is South Africa), were industrialists, innovators, extractors of fossil fuels and minerals, and creators of markets who had no reason to doubt they knew the value and the use of the money they made better than the governments that taxed them and whom they advised and sometimes served (in Rhodes’ case as prime minister). Comfortable in a rainbow South Africa, Ichikowitz would demur at comparisons with titans of the Victorian era. But he is by no means the only wealthy African to realize that home-grown philanthropy favoring the self-starting virtues of work and learning is of greater consequence than the products of the foreign aid industry, whose pernicious side effects (and flaccid direct ones) have been recognized since the beginning.
Africa has produced an impressive number of super-rich super-givers, such as Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote and Sudan’s celebrity donor Mo Ibrahim. There are degrees of giving, of course, and charity also comes from outside the continent (the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation, for example, or Roger Federer’s, or Oprah’s). But apart from medical missions and water purification projects, education is the name of the game, as always has been in America.
Again with apologies for the banality of this generalization, but is difficult to overestimate the hunger — and the respect — of Africans for education. This can at times lead to the technocratic fallacy in leadership terms, but there is not mistaking the effect on enterprise.
A case in point would be Ethiopia, which many Americans still think of as a basket case and a poster child for starvation-relief concerts. Actually, Ethiopia is broadly speaking a lower-tier first-world country. It is not by mistake that many of the Ethiopian-owned and managed firms that have appeared in American cities lately — and not only in the eating industry! — are financed by capital from home, that is to say from a growing middle class with money to invest. The Ethiopian experience recalls the South Korean contribution to revitalizing New York City some decades ago. The current Ethiopian president, Abiy Ahmed, educated in London and Addis Ababa, is not entirely by surprise trans-tribal (Muslim Omoro father, Orthodox Amhara mother; Abiy himself belongs to a Protestant sect) in a country long beset by tensions between people who to the naked eye really look alike.
Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2018 for ending a long conflict with neighbor Eritrea, the regional equivalent of North Korea, Abiy Ahmed is now up against a nasty conflict with a radical group in the Tigray region of the country, which of course gets the attention of the human rights obsessives who somehow always forget that the first duty of government is to ensure security.
The insurgency naturally has consequences for the sub-region, with an unstable and terror-plagued Somalia to the east and Sudan to the west and the little rocket man who runs Eritrea to the north and Kenya to the south. We neglect African security at our peril; in the present geopolitical world, the beneficiaries of instability are, by whatever name they call themselves, the jihadist America-haters. But it is also a reminder that Africans, richer and drawing on better-educated people, can manage their own wars.
Security and education both basic and advanced, for girls as well as boys, humanistic as well as technical or professional, are recurring themes of the Youth Survey, and obviously education-focused philanthropy answers a demand; it would be far more valuable and appreciated than sanctimonious advice on governance and gender rights. The “democracy-building” and “human rights” emphases of U.S. aid programs, including even at USAID, which a long time ago was concerned almost exclusively with basic infrastructure, have little if anything to show for themselves. On the contrary, democracy and human rights advice have served as covers for transferring wealth to masthead organizations who at best serve as hosts to visiting American democracists, and at worst end up as fronts for political movements.
Adding to the din on just what our purposes in foreign affairs should be, this approach merely fills office space in Washington and other alleged world capitals. Africans are no less sensitive than people on other continents to lousy government, the trampling of natural and traditional liberties, or the confiscation of politics by self-serving parties. But when trouble starts, they do not dial the National Endowment for Democracy or Human Rights Watch. They either get down for a traditional sit-down (which can last weeks or months), or they go for the machetes. The Ichikowitz Foundation Survey makes this abundantly clear, showing broad awareness, and dismay, at government malfunction and widespread corruption, and corresponding support for verifiable security.
Americans are in any case scarcely in a position to give others lessons about political dysfunction. A couple years ago the group in power in Algeria ran a moribund candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for a term for which by his own constitutional revision he was ineligible. Good manners forbid making certain pertinent comparisons with our recent presidential campaign.
Nor would we look smart by tut-tutting sanctimoniously when disputes over voter fraud exploded in violence in Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election last October, where the issue of term limits for thee but for me also came up (as it did when Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City). Burkina Faso held an election while under siege from terror bands, and in Mali this year yet another coup knocked off a president judged ineffectual against terrorists. Mali is, or was, a favorite of Washington democracists, and we have sent military training missions there.
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is more bitterly divided over its leadership and program than even the Democrats in the United States. This is no cause for gloating. South Africa is not a country the continent can afford to lose to the kind of collapse that befell its northern neighbor Zimbabwe — or American cities run by Democrats.
The surface political shortcomings in many African countries are not the only important story, however. The wars and civil wars of the 1990s, which led former Secretary of State Susan Rice to speak of “Africa’s World War,” are past nightmares. Young people are, as the survey notes, sharply aware of the terrorist danger, and not only in the Sahel region where it has been most present. They appreciate help, but this means security assistance, not civics classes.
No complacency toward terrorism is acceptable, but it is not world war. American diplomacy toward Africa need not shy away from calling attention to egregious violations of ordinary political fair play or to crippling corruption that, if nothing else, potential American business investors ought to know about. But we have never reformed another country’s domestic dysfunctions, and it is unlikely we ever will.
The issue now is to let an eager, young work force bring the continent fully into its own. And for this, our next foreign policy leadership, from whichever side it draws its personnel, would be well advised to junk the past nostrums and failed policies. As England’s last Victorians said, “Let it be.”