If African governments give greater priority to Asia rather than the EU and the U.S., they would discover that Asia, stretching from India to Japan, has much to share with them.

As World Cup drama unfolds on the African soil for the first time in history, it may be apt to examine the question: Whither Africa? This is particularly relevant as 17 African countries celebrate completion of 50 years of their freedom this year.

Since the ‘scramble for Africa' among European powers for establishing colonies in Africa in the 19th century, the continent has come a long way. On its journey, it has passed through a cycle of exploitation, stagnation, hope, setback and subsequent explosion of new expectations. The past decade seems to have witnessed the second ‘scramble', the competition among ‘old' powers — the U.S. and the EU — and ‘new' powers — China, India, Russia and Brazil, not to speak of ASEAN, Turkey and Iran — to re-engage Africa. Will the coming decade see African countries moving on the road to faster development?

What is required is a realistic evaluation of how Africa has performed in the years since Ghana became the first country to attain Independence in 1957. The late 50s and early 60s represented a special moment in African history as country after country overthrew the colonial yoke. This was the age of hope and of giants such as Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Ben Bella, Senghor, Lumumba and Nyerere. Soon, however, hopes were belied as parts of the continent were engulfed in conflicts. Africa had been caught in the vortex of post-colonial tensions. Neo-colonialism and cold war-related compulsions ensured that both democracy and development suffered enormously. According to one calculation, Africa went through 70 coups and 13 presidential assassinations between 1960s and late 1980s.

Regenerated optimism

The past two decades have regenerated optimism. The end of apartheid and emergence of a democratic South Africa was a big boost. In 1994, there were only eight democracies; today the number is 35. Economic performance has been improving. Between 1995 and 2005, GDP growth rate increased, averaging 5 per cent in 2005. Projections for 2011-12 indicate that growth would be between 4 and 5 per cent. However, these figures can hardly conceal the stark reality of poverty and its brutal consequences in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Television images of emaciated children, teenaged soldiers brandishing guns, and congested urban settlements infested with crime still define our idea of Africa. News stories about disastrous impact of HIV/AIDS, grossly inadequate facilities for health and education and poor governance continue to pour in. Besides, new challenges such as climate change, likely conflicts on water, energy security, and deepening marginalisation in world affairs complicate the situation.

Are Afro-pessimists right then in claiming that Africa's angst would not end in foreseeable future? Africa has been running behind other regions of the world in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. UNDP estimates that, by current trends, Africa would be unable to halve extreme poverty by 2147 AD.

I do not share this pessimism. Having spent seven and a half years in Kenya and South Africa and having travelled extensively in these countries as well as elsewhere on the continent (i.e. Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Egypt and Algeria), I have experienced, first hand, a strong yearning for change. The role of that deep yearning in hastening transformation is important. I have also witnessed talent, creativity, hard work, discipline and dedication on part of youth, women, civil society, media and business. They do not merely clamour for change; they have been working for it.

My considered view is that Afro-optimists are right in maintaining that Africa's turn too will come. But the important stipulation is that it will have to do more to achieve it. This task would become easier if its key international partners become more enlightened and less selfish.

What more can Africa do to secure its salvation – nirvana if you please, from poverty, disease, corruption, conflict and marginalisation?

Mbeki's prescription

Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's President from 1999-2008 and an intellectual giant, offered a thought-provoking prescription at an address in Pretoria on May 27, 2010. Referring to a World Bank report, issued in 2000, which suggested how Africa could “claim the 21st century,” Mbeki observed that its suggestions were “correct and unexceptionable,” but he emphasised that two important elements were missing. One was the need for Africans “to recapture the intellectual space” and to develop their “intellectual capital” so that they themselves could define their future. The second was the need to take necessary steps to ensure that Africa occupied its “rightful place within the global community of nations.”

In order to achieve its goals, suggested Mbeki, Africa should consider the following “Six Steps Forward”: build and nurture intellectual cadre committed to transformation of Africa; develop the capacity of state, government, business, and civil society institutions; resurrect African Renaissance Movement; achieve African cohesion resulting in Africa speaking with one voice on matters of common interest; and develop the media and means to communicate correctly about Africa's present and future. In my view, Mbeki's suggestions deserve wider attention.

About Africa's role in the world, the old colonial mindset seems to be alive and kicking. Recently a senior French minister called Africa “our El Dorado”, a legendary city of gold. France reportedly wants to ensure broader influence in Africa, seen as “a frontier for profit-making.” Many American, EU and Chinese companies seem to share this perspective.

Will Indian companies be different? Will they give to Africa as much as they receive from it, if not more? This is perhaps what Ratan Tata had in mind when he recently recalled that South Africa had been a victim of “exploitative and extractive enterprise”. He suggested that India and South Africa could have “a different relationship”, one based on mutual benefit and genuine partnership. His advice applies to all Indian companies operating in Africa, not just in South Africa.

Friendly governments such as India can certainly help Africa in its efforts to increase its representation in the institutions of global governance. India should take the lead in extending strong support to Africa's demand for greater representation in G-20.

Many African governments have let down their peoples. They will have to shape up. But, people's real hope lies in strengthening the triad of civil society, business and African Diaspora. The more these stake-holders contribute, by working together, towards empowering public opinion and curbing negative tendencies of governments, the more they will bring the day of salvation nearer. International partners should help by creating a stronger synergy with this triad.

A word of advice for African governments: they need to craft their own version of ‘Look East' policy. If they give greater priority to Asia rather than the EU and the U.S., they would discover that Asia, stretching from India to Japan, has much to offer and share with them.

At India-Africa Forum Summit in Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of India's wish “to see the 21st century as the Century of Asia and Africa with the people of two continents working together to promote inclusive globalisation.” These words struck a chord in many African capitals.

Amidst a rising crescendo of excitement before the World Cup began, South African President Jacob Zuma proclaimed grandly: “Africa has arrived.” Maybe, but realists are unlikely to agree.

Mother Africa would have “arrived” when democracy, peace and progress touching all her children, prevail on a lasting basis.

(A retired diplomat now, the writer served as India's High Commissioner to South Africa and Kenya.)

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