9 February 2005

African Solutions To African Problems: A Slogan Whose Time Has Passed


Washington, DC — Last month, African Heads of State converged on Abuja, Nigeria, for a summit meeting of the African Union (AU), the organization that covers all of the continent's 53 member states.

These leaders reflected upon the devastating costs, both human and material, of current crises in Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Darfur, Sudan, and assessed progress made on African-led initiatives such as the African Peace and Security Council and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Many ordinary Africans hoped that these leaders would also consider how best to engage the G7 countries to take advantage of, among other things, the newly constituted Blair's Commission for Africa, and the World Bank and other international financial institutions on the crushing debt burden.

In the post-Abuja period, as I look at the full plate of unfinished business awaiting the AU, I hasten to suggest this be the appropriate time to revisit the relevance of a slogan engraved in many a speech and declaration in the last decade. The catch-all phrase of 'African solutions to African problems' became part of parlance as a matter of necessity, following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda when African countries watched the international community stand by as over 800.000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu extremists.

Coming on the heels of the Somalia experience in which the United States sustained casualties and became unwilling to commit troops to interventions in African crisis situations, and with other world powers equally disengaged, African leaders learned the hard way that ultimately they have to resolve crises on their continent and look out for their own. A priori, the principle of personal responsibility for self preservation looks right on its face; however in today's global context, the slogan 'African solutions to African problems' smacks of self-inflicted isolation, and invites further marginalization and benign neglect.

Ten years after Rwanda, this phrase has lost its rationale. The continent has made progress on democratic governance in more than twenty countries including Benin, Botswana, Ghana, Mali, Senegal and South Africa, and citizens of these countries now see themselves as members of a larger community of democrats worldwide. The AU itself is being energized by new leadership with a new vision, and sub regional organizations such as the South African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States are having an impact. Armed conflicts that raged in the 1990s in countries such as Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Angola have ended. Yet the slogan paints a blanket imagery of 'all of Africa equals problems.' On the one hand, it has been misused by autocratic regimes in countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Togo, Guinea and Cameroon, who claim that the rest of the world has no business criticizing their human rights violations, stolen elections and culture of corruption. On the other hand, the slogan provides solace to some bureaucrats in donor countries who are reluctant or unwilling to propose bold steps that can bring their countries to assist Africa in its path. Even 'friends of Africa' are left wondering whether their genuine efforts and initiatives would be second-guessed ad nuseum or met with excessive hostility and unnecessary criticism by those they intend to assist.

The terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, changed the world, and the earlier bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were a harbinger of worse things to come. While the sadist perpetrators of these acts define the United States as their target, political leadership here rightly casts this horrific phenomenon as the global threat of our century. Cooperation and assistance of all sorts, and from countries big and small, contribute significantly to the results that have been accomplished thus far in the now global war against terrorism. A month ago the Tsunami hit several countries in Asia (and a few in Africa) with hundreds of thousands of deaths and immeasurable property loss. The world did the right thing and no one said the Tsunami was an Asian problem. Yet, to paraphrase the words of one of the lead United Nations coordinators of the Tsunami relief effort, to understand the enormity of the crisis in eastern Congo for example, one has got to imagine a Tsunami hitting that country every six months. Yes, one crisis may be a natural disaster, and the other man-made, but does that mean we shut our eyes to the suffering, or conversely that Africans close their doors to other people's relief and assistance?

It is one thing to encourage, support and strengthen African capacity to respond to unforeseen calamities or to prevent differences of opinion and competing interests from spilling over into armed conflict; it is quite another -- and in today's context, indefensible -- to revert to an outdated and obsolete dictum.

The writer is Senior Associate for Africa at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affaires, and adjunct faculty of African government and politics at Georgetown University. The views expressed are his alone.


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