Africa: a continent going through recession but with an infinite potential
A continent that needs to be acknowledged in its dignity
Africa Day is an annual commemoration of the foundation of the Organization of African Unity. Talking to Vatican News, Africanist Giulio Albanese, paints a picture of the condition in which the continent finds itself today, amidst conflicts, pandemic and poverty. But he also reminds us of its great riches and its cultural potential; however, it lacks support in its desire to grow and develop.
Adriana Masotti - Vatican City
June 7, 2021
Africal World Day is celebrated every year on May 25th. This is the annual commemoration of the foundation of the Organization of African Unity which took place on May 25, 1963, the day when the leaders of 30 of the continent’s 32 independent states signed the Charter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The aim was to promote unity and solidarity among members and safeguard their territorial integrity. In 2009, the Organization was replaced by the African Union with the intention of accelerating the African integration process by supporting African states in the context of global economy and addressing social, economic and political problems. Not only that: among the objectives there was, and still is, the promotion of democratic principles, peace, security and stability of the continent, and the promotion and protection of individual’s and peoples’ rights. Today the African Union has fifty-four member states.
A continent going through recession but with an infinite potential.
This year, for Pentecost, the bishops of SECAM, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, have expressed in a message their concern over the pandemic that has spread in their continent, the continuing violent conflicts and the high rate of poverty, making a strong appeal to the faithful for their charity and prayers. World Africa Day is a good opportunity to talk about this continent that is marginalized, but which in reality is a tempting prey for the interests of many and whose problems inevitably have repercussions on the rest of the world, such as the issue of migration. A continent which is also so rich in potential, in culture, in values, in the desire to move forward.
But, what is the general situation regarding health in Africa at this time?
We asked Father Giulio Albanese, a Comboni missionary, journalist, columnist at L’Osservatore Romano, and an expert in Africa:
G. Albanese – The African continent is going through a painful situation, I would say first of all because of the wave of conflicts between states, from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from northern Nigeria to the recent crisis in Tigray. Let’s say the list is long, and let’s also remember the tough conditions derived from the crisis in Libya with the constant penetration of jihadists towards the South, towards sub-Saharan Africa.
Then, we add to this the economic crisis triggered by Covid-19, which detonated unprecedented recessionary mechanisms, along with the obstinacy of international financial speculation and the weakness of the continental health system, not to mention climate change. Thus, the much vaunted African Renaissance, in my opinion, at this point seems to have disappeared into a soap bubble.
Does the African Union, which followed the Organization of African Unity, have the capacity and ability to work for the goals for which it was created?
G. Albanese – I believe that from this point of view as well, it is necessary to be extremely realistic. In recent years, progress has certainly been made. When the Organization of African Unity was born, there were a lot of dreams tucked in a drawer, but the fact is that this organization never really functioned well. The revival occurred with the birth of the African Union which certainly represented progress. First of all, it has led to greater integration between the states, but one of the fixed points on which the previous Organization was based, is the fact that it could not interfere in the internal affairs of each country.
Today, instead, when there is a coup d’état in any African country, the first initiative that is taken by Addis Ababa, the host city of the Union, is precisely to suspend that state, essentially removing it from the group.
The question of the intangibility of borders remains open, still a kind of unquestionable principle. The problem is that in the meantime changes have occurred, think of the birth of Eritrea, which was previously part of Ethiopia, or in 2011 the birth of South Sudan; which means that the great Sudan, until then the largest African country, has been split in two. Now this is a cause for concern, since we know that state borders are a legacy of the colonial period.
Of course we need to avoid conflict situations, but let us not forget that the first thing we need to do today to ensure peace on the continent is to guarantee food supplies and then the democratic participation of all those within the countries who are called upon to exercise their right to vote.
We know that in Africa this is another big problem, because when there are elections, fraud very often occurs in many countires.
But there is one fundamental aspect: the fact is that, in any case, in Africa there is a civil society that is maturing. It is composed of many associations, movements and groups, including Christian ecclesial entities, that are committed to affirm the rights of citizens. I believe that civil society, in its multiple expressions, truly constitutes the fertile ground for those who will be the future ruling classes. This is a bet that must be made and on which we must focus.
Conflict, climate change, malnutrition, migration, and corruption continue to plague Africa, and our image of the continent is mostly negative. Is there anything that can change our minds, as you mentioned, that will make us more open to the beauty of Africa as well?
G. Albanese – I believe that the challenge is, above all, a cultural one. That is, we have to get it into our heads that we need to get rid of certain clichés that belong to our imagination. For example, Africa is absolutely not as poor as it is often thought. Maybe it has become impoverished, but that’s another thing.
Africa is not asking for charity, but for the recognition of its own dignity. If this continent were truly respected, it would not appear as a land available for conquest by foreign multinational organizations and private companies. Africa really needs intelligent and forward thinking cooperation because, if you look at the UNCTAD figures, the paradox is precisely this: that African nations give much more money to rich, industrialized nations than what we presumably give to African nations. And this is because there is a strong speculative activity precisely on the natural resources of the continent.
Another very important aspect is the debt issue. When money is lent to African countries, we witness the well-known “financing” of the debt. Basically, it means that the payment of interests is linked to speculation on the stock market, and it is a vexing system because it has been mathematically demonstrated that if the debt is “financed,” the recipient of the money, the beneficiary, will never be in a position to pay back, according to the time schedule, what he has received. I am referring here in particular to the interest system. Therefore, there is something systemically wrong, which impedes the longed-for development.
The pandemic has also hit Africa. Now the open question is regarding the vaccines. There is still a lot to be done so that Africans get vaccinated and it is said that a global response should be given to this situation.
G. Albanese – This is very important because the continental healthcare system leaves much to be desired. Certainly, during the last year and a half many efforts have been made not only to deal with the pandemic but also to respond. This does not mean that there isn’t still a long way to go, among other things because Africa is quite large and, above all, the rural zones are usually very isolated.
Nowadays there is a shortage of vaccines in Africa and the participation of the forum of nations is essential to improve this situation. Africa really needs solidarity from the health point of view, because it is the continent in the world where counterfeit medicines circulate the most, which, instead of curing people, can even cause their death in many cases. We must realize that we have a common destiny and I believe that this is the great lesson that this pandemic has shown us.
As long as there is a lack of vaccines in the world, especially in Africa, the risk of new variants, and therefore of the virus continuing to spread, is practically certain. This is why an effort is needed, and here I recall what the great Senegalese statesman, Leopold Sedar Senghor, said: “the past has found us divided, but the present must find us giving and receiving because we have a common destiny”.
Pliny the Elder said about the African continent: “ex Africa semper aliquid novi”, which means that in Africa there is always something new. Let us not forget that Africa has an extraordinary potential, that it possesses ancestral knowledge, that it is truly a galaxy of people – there are more than 1,500 ethnic groups – and that if we go back in time, we see that it was the cradle of humanity, that it was there that homo sapiens took his first steps.
And I believe that Africa not only needs recognition and restitution, but that we must not forget that these cultures have given much to humankind. Let us think about the Egyptian civilization, the Axumite civilization, let us also think of all the ethnic groups that are light years away from our imagination, but which possess knowledge that, in any case, is part of the common good of humanity of which we ourselves are an integral part.
Translation by Maribel Acarón