Africa was in the headlines again last month, this time for the death of President Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr. Kabila's demise will throw into doubt the course of a war that has raged for more than two years across this African nation of about 52 million people. The Kabila regime maintains nominal control over barely half the country, with the remainder in the hands of rebels or foreign troops.
His death could also touch off a struggle for succession. Belgium, the Congo's former colonial ruler, is still heavily involved in the country's internal affairs, for it is a nation rich in natural resources, yet also one of the world's poorest.
Any successor to Kabila would inherit a social and economic infrastructure ruined by war and the after-effects of ex-President Mobutu's regime as well. Mobutu systematically looted the nation's resources, notably diamonds, gold and copper, for his personal benefit.
Unfortunately, the Congo's story is only one sad chapter in the modern history of Africa, which started during the 1400s with the advent of European colonization.
Many analysts, including some Africans, blame the Africans themselves for their continent-wide failures in achieving higher levels of human development, public education, health care and functional democracy.
But the fact remains that Europe is responsible for the deterioration of conditions in Africa, the prevalence of poverty and war and the spread of corruption, in addition to the widening rift between Africa's seven hundred million people -- nearly a fifth of the world's population -- and those of the developed world.
These factors are seen as having stripped Africa of any political, strategic or economic weight, reducing its role to that of a provider of raw materials, on terms set by the West. The only European colonial legacy is a patchwork of ill-defined borders, quite common across Africa, and a primary cause of regional wars.
The UN has eight peace missions in Africa, including the UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone, the Peace-building Support Office in Liberia, the UN Observer Mission in Angola, the UN Mission in the Central African Republic, the UN Political Office in Somalia, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda and the UN Office in Burundi -- all countries recently or currently ravaged by civil wars.
Africa's share of total world trade is less than two per cent. The grinding poverty, glaring inequalities and the yawning gap between rich and poor fuel civil conflicts and human rights abuses throughout the continent.
Tanzania's minister of foreign affairs appealed last year for the cancellation of all African debts to affluent northern countries, saying, "We have a serious problem: an average of 50 per cent of government revenue is spent on payment of debt and 50 per cent on salaries. In fact, in some instances, if not in most cases, people are being paid for not working, because you don't have the capacity to give people the facilities to do their work."
There was a surge of American interest in Africa during the Clinton administration. His tour of six African countries generated a great deal of optimism and many promises were made to the continent most neglected by the US. Yet American aid to Africa fell from $1,933 million in 1992 to 1,180 million in 1997. And the downward trend continues unabated.
Africans realize that democracy is a difficult process that requires vigilance and constant nurturing, and it is absolutely essential to good governance. The issue for them is not whether to democratise, but how, and how soon. They long for accountable and transparent systems, political liberalisation, the rule of law and respect for human rights. But democracy alone is not sufficient to assure Africans of prosperity.
Blaming the victims is a strategy which all too often claims credibility. But the fact remains that Europe is ultimately responsible for the deterioration of economic conditions, the prevalence of poverty and war and the spread of governmental and civil corruption, thus widening the already enormous rift between Africa's peoples and those of first-world nations. These factors are seen as having stripped Africa of any political, strategic or economic weight, reducing its role to that of a raw materials provider, on terms set not by Africans themselves, but by the industrialized states of Europe and North America.
European exploitation of Africa was, and still is, racist -- it's a clear and simple fact. That's why it doesn't cross any European mind to apologize to Africa for ages of plundering and colonization. Instead, much of Europe is interested in promoting legislation to ensure that African immigrants return to their countries of origin so as not to create a social "imbalance" within prosperous, white, European society.
This is, above all, is a moral issue. Europe cannot escape the fact that it should collectively apologize to Africa for centuries of crimes committed and riches plundered.
More importantly, Europeans must learn to treat Africans as equals -- not just for the benefits of Africans, but for Europeans themselves. The European Union (EU) should therefore waste no time in establishing new policies on key issues such as forgiving debts, increasing investment, or entering into genuinely beneficial economic partnerships. African development is the greatest development challenge faced by the world today. African leadership has repeatedly stumbled in attempts to find solutions to the continent's grave economic, social, political and human rights problems. And Europe will never be able to protect itself against the future threat of upwelling African misery if it fails to extend a helping hand now to the Africans themselves.
Mohamed Elmasry, an Egyptian born Canadian, is professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Univeristy of Waterloo, and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
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