Posted tagged ‘Africa’

Expecting life

January 11, 2011

In 1992, when I was Dean of the University of Hull Law School, my technology officer was trying to persuade me to allow him to put up a web page for the School. I am ashamed to say that I had never even heard of the World Wide Web (though I was already a dedicated email user), but I was eager to be briefed. He demonstrated its value to me by taking me to the CIA website and showing me the real wealth of information available there about global matters. That would still be a good demonstration: don’t be put off by the site ownership, this is genuinely a site of real interest.

One of the really interesting tables the CIA publishes annually is the one setting out comparative life expectancy around the world. It makes for fascinating reading. The country with the longest life expectancy at birth – of 89 years – is Monaco (maybe not surprising, since the pampered royal family must account for a significant proportion of the population). We then have Macau, San Marino and Andorra, also small. But who would you think comes next: Sweden, Switzerland, Austria? No, not at all. Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. In fact, Europe (Scandinavian or otherwise) doesn’t particularly shine. By the way Ireland, sandwiched between Norway and Jordan at number 26, has a life expectancy of 80. We do better than the UK, Austria and Germany – and much better than Finland – though not as well as France, Spain and Sweden.

But here’s the thing we should really take note of. The bottom 52 of the table are, with only one exception (Haiti), African countries, with life expectancies ranging from 63 to 38. And no African country comes higher in the list than that (No 175), not even South Africa (which actually doesn’t even do very well by African standards). The table demonstrates what an unequal world this is, and how totally ineffective all our efforts have been to make it otherwise. For all of us, it should be a table of shame.

Forgotten conflict

May 30, 2010

When in discussion exactly a year ago today with a group from a variety of age groups, I pointed out that this day (May 30) was a significant date in history for an African politician called Ojukwu, and I asked if anyone knew who he was. Nobody was able to answer my question. If I had asked the same question in the late 1960s, the chances are that most people would have known, because between 1967 and 1970 General Ojukwu led the secessionist Republic of Biafra, taking up the post on May 30, 1967.

The struggle between Biafra and Nigeria, from which it had broken away, was one that shocked and scandalised many from my generation at the time. Whatever the rights and wrongs may have been of the political differences in Nigeria that sparked the breakaway and the subsequent civil war, the hardship that resulted for the people of Biafra was terrible. The Nigerians were supported by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union (in a rare joint effort). The conflict ended with the defeat of Biafra and exile for Ojukwu in 1970 (though he later returned, indeed standing for President of Nigeria in recent elections).

Nigeria still has major problems, and while the Biafra conflict may have ended 40 years ago, we should still know about it and learn its lessons, particularly as regards the role played by European powers. Maybe it is time for people to brush up on this very tragic part of recent African history.

Hoping for Africa

September 20, 2009

Exactly 30 years ago today a coup in what we know as the Central African Republic overthrew the self-styled ‘Emperor’ Bokassa  and returned that country from its purported status as the ‘Central African Empire’ to its previous constitutional position. All well and good, you might say, but this event, and what preceded it and followed it, was in many ways typical of the tragedies, betrayals and abuses that have characterised African developments over the years.

Bokassa had been the country’s strongman since he had himself overthrown his predecessor in 1965. By 1972 he had declared himself ‘President-for-Life’ (a title assumed by quite a few in the rogues’ gallery of recent African history). But that wasn’t enough, and in 1976 he promoted himself to Emperor, followed in 1977 by a pastiche-Napoleonic self-coronation. Two years later came the coup, which in turn was organised by the former colonial power, France, who then reinstalled another of the rogues, Bokassa’s predecessor (and now successor) David Dacko. There then followed various coups, mutinies and disputed elections, shootings of politicians and military officers, interventions by French troops and (as is also not uncommon) Libyan ones, and so you get a parade of events and crooks stretching as far as the eye can see, and a big group of victims, who are essentially the people of the Central African Republic. And, of course, you get us, a people over here for whom all of that is happening in a place far far away, affecting a remote and unfamiliar people.

The Central African Republic has had more than its fair share of these terrors, and yet its experiences find a resonance in those of many other African counties. For years during the Cold War various African states became proxies for the principal players of that era; Angola, for example, had various unpleasant rival movements fighting each other with some savagery, and with the money, advice and weapons of the West and the East. At times of famine and humanitarian disasters the developed world does take an interest, and contributes generously, and at certain iconic moments such as the release of Nelson Mandela African politics become interesting to us. But at all other times we are immune to the problems of Africa, for which we bear a fair amount of responsibility due to the continent’s colonial history.

It is time to change, I believe. Time to stop shrugging and turning away. Time to stop tolerating unacceptable political abuses and the rise of dictators and mega-crooks. Time to acknowledge the role we Europeans played in getting Africa into this state. But also, time to stop making excuses for some of the worst local offenders based on our own feelings of guilt.

Africa needs a new deal. And Europe needs to help.