Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Africa: Less Conflict than Advertised

The entry for August's correction of African stereotypes comes from Easterly's excellent blog, Aid Watch where you can find the entire
reaction to President Obama’s speech in Ghana by guest blogger Leonard Wantchekon, NYU Professor of Politics

Overall, I like the theme of the President Obama’s speech in Ghana. Africans must own their future by strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law in their countries, and by becoming less reliant on assistance. I also like the idea of a real partnership between Africa and other developed countries based on trade. It is very much in line with what most of us would think. He said:
"America can also do more to promote trade and investment. Wealthy nations must open our doors to goods and services from Africa in a meaningful way. ..."
What I find a bit questionable is this:
"Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at perpetual war. But if we are honest, for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun ... These conflicts are a millstone around Africa's neck."
My sense is that in saying this he has helped to perpetuate, perhaps unwittingly, the very caricature that he questions. Conflict is NOT as constant as the sun in Africa. While this may have been the reality of the 1970s and the 1980s, it is certainly no longer the case. He forgot to add that many of these conflicts were proxy wars between the US and the former Soviet Union (such as that in Angola), or were manufactured by France (such as that in Congo Brazzaville).

The average African country is at peace. Moreover, it is a democracy, albeit one with relatively weak state capacity, such as Liberia, and Mali. Zimbabwe is the exception, not the rule. And even in Zimbabwe, where there is 90% unemployment, incredible hardships and repression, most people want democracy, not another war.

Freedom, especially freedom of the press, has also drastically improved in the majority of African countries, to the point where Reporters Without Borders have ranked several African nations above developed countries such as Italy and Japan.

... In terms of the strongman syndrome, things have changed for the better. All across Africa courts and unions have tried (most of the time successfully) to block and prevent constitutional changes that would allow the sitting president to run for an additional term (African presidents have therefore been less successful than the Mayor of New York City in this regard!). Afrobarometer surveys suggest that 75% of Africans reject military rule, 73% reject a one-party system, and 79% reject strongman rule. ...

People responded to the initial blog post, and this comes from his response to the comments.

How many countries that can be considered to be at war, in Africa? The two clear cut cases are Somalia, and Sudan. But you can add Chad and to some extent Congo. That is 4 out of 54 countries in Africa. That is 7 percent of Africa. You can throw in Nigeria or Kenya because of electoral violence. But would we call India a country at war? ...

[If] we want to promote investment and tourism in Africa, it is really counter-productive to exaggerate the security situation. We also need to report progress, which has been significant in the past 10 years.


The map on the right comes from the US State Dept. Humanitarian Information Unit. I see only 4 countries where there is widespread conflict (as opposed to hot spots), but more countries do have hot spots than acknowledged above. Even so, the percent of Africa in conflict is quite low compared to historical averages and stereotypes alike. I found a 1999 map from the BBC and it shows a similar, albeit less-detailed, picture.

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