Africa remains the Dark Continent. A century and a half ago, the epithet signified ignorance, primarily of the continent’s physical geography but of everything else too, except the coastline. Colonial invaders wanted to know two things only: which local leaders could be played off against each other, and what resources were extractable. Understanding Africa’s cultural and demographic characteristics was of interest only to leisured gentleman-explorers and a few military types planning to take control.
These days the darkness remains. Ignoring Africa while the Middle East burned was a bad move. Conflicts, war crimes, weaponized food supplies, all are on the rise. The effective lack of accountability in a multi-polar world only adds to the caustic mix.
Mozambique is not the only nation in Africa for which the Cold War was an inescapable vortex of violence. Yet it is facing a crisis as militants affiliated to Islamic State intensify a horrific campaign of violence in the Cabo Delgado region, which has a long Indian Ocean coastline and a lot of gas reserves. Those displaced now number upwards of half a million.
Portugal, the former colonial power, has promised to intervene with ground forces. But what of the refugees? Would their story have been reported were it not for the Islamic State angle (and the gas reserves)?
It’s easy to forget that all crises in Africa are to some extent chained together, like convicts. The leaky boats pushing off from Libyan ports are full of sub-Saharan Africans desperately seeking a life, any life, away from poverty, violence, and death in their strife-torn homelands.
Amid the chaos of a global pandemic, a swathe of countries in central Africa have millions of internally displaced persons. Hundreds of thousands more are at imminent risk. Hunger stalks the land. Refugees are fleeing in their millions across borders to regions that can defeat the most robust logistics. Numerous already impoverished countries are dealing with the burdensome fallout.
Africans were first enslaved, then subjugated by the fast-developing Europeans. For good measure, they handed the continent a hospital pass as they left on their ocean steamers.
Independence meant ‘shift for yourself and survive any way you can’. Attempts were made with varying success across the continent to keep whites in power, by hook or crook or gun.
Freshman presidents all over Africa, well-intentioned or not, defaulted to personality-cult demagoguery. They soon found that pesky long-term development projects such as education and health services were out of synch with the ‘election’ cycle, and who knew how expensive healthcare could be?
They were also quick to discover that the most effective tools for clinging onto power were avowed Cold-War partisanship, clan-aligned nepotism, brutal oppression, and outright theft. In Africa, as in many other continents, U.S.-allied dictators, unlike their Marxist-Leninist counterparts, could amass billions of expatriated dollars while their citizens starved, and still get invited to Washington as honoured guests lauded for their ‘resilience’ in facing down Communism.
Today’s Africa, and all our world’s troubled regions, could do with a lucky break.