Monday, March 7, 2011

Hey, what about the rest of Africa?

All the things I’m missing

Looking back over on the six weeks or so that I've been writing this blog I'm struck by two things: how much I’ve covered, and how much I haven't even begun to touch on.

Most notably, I've barely mentioned Iraq, where some really dramatic events are taking place, but there are several other countries in the greater Middle East that haven't gotten much mention at all - particularly the “-stans”, but also other significant portions of Muslim Africa like Mauritina, Somalia and Djibouti, all of which are in the midst of the things that are in and of themselves, just as important as any of the events I've described a this blog.

This, of course, raises the question of “what exactly is the Middle East?" The answer to that question is an ambiguous mix of history, language, culture, and geography - a deeper examination of that can be found here.

Beyond the simple issue of what is or is not the Middle East, it is important to draw attention to a larger conceptual and philosophical issue. Although the seeds of the events we are seeing today were planted long ago, the event that really kicked it off was the one that took place in Tunisia. From that point forward, the eyes of the western world have been on Libya and Egypt for the past several weeks, with regular glances over to the Arabian Peninsula.

But, in spite of all that, why do we care so much about what happens in the Middle East/North Africa and so little about what happens in the rest of Africa?

I’d like to use this blog to address the wider issue of Africa, beginning with a bit of speculation, and then some comments and updates that, while far from comprehensive, may at least inspire you to look in a few new directions over the next several weeks and months.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not well versed in African history. In the past I've had the good fortune to share a house with several remarkable individuals from Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and through conversations with them and the simple act of living alongside them I have acquired some small slivers of understanding with regards the cultures of these two countries. I've also had a decent enough education in European history to understand some of the colonial circumstances that led up to the current conditions we see today.

I don't really know much about sub-Saharan Africa, but I've got a pretty good idea as to why I don’t know much about it.

First of all, it should be pointed out that Africa is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the convenience store, but that's just peanuts to Africa. To really understand the size of the continent it's worthwhile to look at this map.

Then there’s the linguistic situation – unlike South America, which is also a huge continent with dozens of countries, there is no common language that is spoken almost universally across the entire landmass. Take, for example, my dear friend Alex. A young man in his 20’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he speaks seven distinct languages fluently – Bembe/Ichibemba, Efe, Lengala, Mboko, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, French, and English (this is not to mention dialects). Most of his linguistic range was developed in only two countries - DRC and neighboring Rwanda, and many of them aren’t spoken outside of small distinct geographic regions. (English was a latecomer; he had only begun to speak it after his arrival to America a year earlier.)

French will get you by in some parts of Africa, Arabic in others, Swahili in some, Hausa elsewhere, English or Afrikaans in other places - every country has multiple languages, and even multiple dialects within those languages. There is no one language that can carry you across Africa in a way that Arabic can take you all the way across the Middle East. Africa contains 53 countries, and even a well-educated scholar would have trouble identifying even a fifth them on an unlabeled map. (You're welcome to try to prove me wrong, here's an online quiz)

This linguistic and geographic complexity, combined with the limited (for now) strategic importance of Africa to the global economy means that for most people, the effort required to familiarize oneself with the continent of Africa seems to be a rather daunting task with little reward involved.

Even in the course of writing this blog, I have become ashamed of the limits to my own knowledge on Africa.

In fact, here’s a challenge – lets learn the names of all of the African countries and their capitals, and be able to locate them on an unlabeled map. I’ll commit to this for sure. We'll see how I do at the end of the year (maybe I'll make a YouTube video for you).

So, anyway, Africa.

The impact of the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian revolutions has been felt elsewhere in Africa, and more importantly, there are a number of events taking place in sub-Saharan Africa that may be as momentous as anything in the Arab world. But, don’t expect to see many of them on the news.

Let's begin (use this map for reference)

First of all, there is Cote d’ivore (AKA the Ivory Coast), which seems to be the most pressing situation. The country was on the verge of civil war over a disputed election before the first protests hit the streets of Tunisia. A predominantly French-speaking country of more than 20 million people, the former president has refused to step down after losing the 2010 election by a 46/54 margin.

The old president, Laurent Gbagbo, denied the accuracy of the election results, and claimed victory 52/48 in the opposite direction. Gbagbo is standing his ground, while the true winner, Alassane Ouattara, has been sworn in and established his own government. As a result, there are two separate and opposing governments in Cote d’ivore, and the armed clashes between them have been steadily escalating, with more than 300 deaths since December. (Some background here)

Most horrifying were the events late last week, where Gbagbo’s soldiers fired on a group of unarmed women at a rally for Ouattara, killing six. Gbagbo has also cut power and water supplies to the country’s north (largely under the control of Ouattara supporters) which may trigger a resumption of the 2002/2003 North/South civil war.

Not only are UN peacekeepers unable to protect the civilian population, they themselves are being targete by pro-Gbagbo forces, and thousands of people are fleeing the violence and unrest.

Gabon – not far from Cote d’ivore, is a small country of about 1.5 million that has been experiencing widespread protests for the past month. The current president, Ali Ondimba entered office in late 2009, and is the son of the previous president (who entered office in 1967 and had a long history of disputed elections). A pan-African news agency describes the situation thusly:
It’s understandable that protests in Gabon haven’t captured the world’s attention. Gabon is a small nation, with a population of 1.5 million, and very few casual newspaper readers could place it accurately on a map. But this lack of attention has consequences. As protests unfolded in Libreville, opposition leader André Mba Obame – who likely won the 2009 election – and his leading advisors took sanctuary in the UNDP's compound in the city, fearing arrest by Ali Bongo’s forces. According to recent Facebook posts, Obame and his advisors are facing steady pressure from UNDP to vacate the premises, and have already been ordered to surrender their cellphones.

Neighboring Camaroon, with a population more than ten times that of Gabon is also undergoing protests and forceful repression, but has received almost no news coverage in the west.

Zimbabwe, with a population of nearly 13 million, is experiencing a degree of uneasiness that seems to point to a brewing revolution. In particular, the government has arrested dozens of of potential protesters and activists for the simple act of watching the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions on television.

Although some have argued that the country is not yet ready for a revolution, the fact that the government would take these actions suggests that they are concerned that the unrest in North Africa could spread south, and some dissenting voices say that revolution should not be ruled out.

Angola, a country of close to 20 million, has long been the site of unrest and violence, including a 15 year long bloody civil war from 1975-1990. The current leader, José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for 32 years, and protests loosely modeled on those seen in the Middle East were planned for today. These have been organized using the facebook+text message+word of mouth method – those interesting in seeing if the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions can be exported elsewhere would do well to watch Angola very closely. (English version here)

Tanzania – I’ve been reading Katebomb’s blog pretty regularly, and she’s been writing some great stuff on the situation there. Rather than trying to sum up I'll just point you there.

Understanding Africa sometimes seems like a hopeless task - it seems so unstable and chaotic and overwhelming and we don’t have the deep geopolitical connections to Africa that we have in the Middle East. There are a whole host of reasons for this (don’t say it’s because Africa doesn’t have oil. Africa has lots of oil) Size and complexity is a factor as well, but I think the real reason why we as Americans don’t get Africa is that Africa doesn’t have any countries that are players on the world stage. The big powerhouses are in Europe, North America and Asia.

Well...maybe powerhouses aren't where the story is anymore.


  1. great post.

    The board game "afriqu'enjeux" might help in your self-education effort.

    Here is a 2007 map of the U.S. oil consumption.

    Looking at Africa and playing the role of an empire uniquely dependent on oil, I am most concerned with Nigeria. Plus or minus Libya is a much smaller effect on the cost of energy (and thus production) than that of the 2007-2008 credit crises, a revolution in Mexico, or a switch to natural gas. Back to Nigeria: one thing you can say about its government is that it is the sort that will let the oil flow; the astonishing events of North Africa will have little effect on that.

    Now playing as the media of some powerhouse, I would hunt down stories that smelt of oil, but failing to find such an influence, look for a larger story. In the case of popular success, I would look for examples of pan-Africanism that could have the same stabilising effect found in South America; in the case of dictatorial success, history. I think that in any case, the Arab Spring's most profound cross-Saharan effect is well illustrated in your post: the increased competition for the attention of commercial media will make for more, bloodier civil wars and revolutions.

    On the natural gas angle: if America manages to make a switch in fuels, it will be the first empire to do so.

    Long time reader, first time commentator =]

  2. Wow! Thanks for the comment - very insightful.

    Feel free to keep contributing. I'll try to keep Africa in the mix when it comes to posts.