‘Africa: A Moral Outrage’ – Tony Blair (Part 2) by Yemi Ogunshola
Anthropologists say that Africa once enjoyed a time of greatness that helped to bring about the civilization of the Western world: a period of scientists, sailors (as in Mansa Musa’s time), scholars, historians, astrologers, mathematicians,and philosophers. In ancient Ghana, then the Gold Coast, you could keep your gold at the village square and return a long time afterward to find the precious metal at the same spot. But it was also a place that provided strong slaves for the plantations of Europe and the Americas.
Anthropologists say, too, that the concept of trading, negotiation (as in barter), science, sociology, new-age engineering and reconstructionism spread out of Africa. Northern Africa also had a taste of Roman civilization, spreading down to wealthy Egypt and her neighbouring states.
Not only was the first university in the world located there, it was also in Africa that modern warfare and the use of guns originated. Alas, the guns have now been developed and re-sold to the old country so political factions could kill each other. A friend asked recently: “Given the wealth and beauty of the African past, how then did all the good things suddenly go sour?”
Some contest that it started with slavery, which saw the depletion of the strong work-force of the African continent. But what is often not realized is the extent of the co-operation of some of Africa’s kings in this trade, and the existence of worse levels of slavery and serfdom in Europe long before it began on a large scale.
Yet, the African experience was hardly a period of slavery in the beginning. It was, since the first Spanish caravel sailed from the West coast of Guinea in 1505 with almost twenty Africans, a well-intentioned attempt by the kings to help Europe to develop, especially in the field of modern agriculture. Because of the quality of African engineers, the Spanish, and later the Portuguese, asked for more: an insatiable appetite that eventually led to inter-communal war, forced captivity, and ultimate degeneration to indentured servitude and, eventually, slavery in the Americas. The rest is history.
Not much has changed!
Many question the seriousness, or lack of it, of the black communities regarding their own affairs. At the session with the PM in Lancaster House, it was revealed that fewer than 1% of people in a poll taken knew about the existence of the Commission for Africa. It would seem reasonable that we must now move beyond the issues of food and water for black people, to those of knowledge acquisition, literary appreciation, science, technology, all of which will help to set currently disadvantaged African countries on an equal footing with the rest of the developed world.
The Gordian Knot
There is an old gardeners’ saying, that the apple never falls too far from the tree. This links with the fable of the Gordian knot. The legend goes that some old men, wise in their ways, travelled into Greece to unravel the mystery of the knot. But, alas, their attempts at unpicking it were to no avail. And then Alexander, young and vibrant, stepped forth and cut the knot in one masterful stroke with his sword.
The story connects with events of the Diaspora. In a floor contribution at a London session prior to the meeting in Lancaster House, one lone voice suggested a mental re-orientation, a suggestion that was hardly accorded a second thought. Like Alexander, though, the lone voice had cut the Gordian knot, for more needs be done to get back to the roots of what made Africa tick in the past.
The African Question
But now, the British PM waves an olive branch anew! At Lancaster House, venue for the last meeting of the African Commission, Mr. Blair took questions from the press. The Sky News correspondent ask the PM first to clear ‘the uncertainties created by the Iraqi war’. The PM stated that he preferred to concentrate on African issues for the moment.
A correspondent from Kenya wanted to pin Tony Blair down to the issue of debt-relief. The PM made promises, but would not be committed on debt forgiveness for African nations considered wealthy enough. Nigeria is a case in point: a nation blessed with human and material resources, but one still struggling with political and administrative matters.
But soon it was all over for that night. It was bright and lovely at Lancaster House as members of the press mingled to exchange further ideas, enabling the foreign press to learn some of the realities at first hand from the African journalists.
Bob Geldorf’s presence was a reminder of the all-star cast of the 1984 Feed the World project (in aid of famine relief in Ethiopia), that featured artistes such as Boy George, Jody Watley, Sting, Phil Collins, Paul Young, Gary Kemp, Roger Taylor, George Michael, and other members of groups that included Bananarama, Cool and the Gang, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, and Culture Club. Eight million pounds was raised worldwide.
A new generation of singers, including Miss Dynamite, Will Young, Jamelia, and several others made the studio in November 2004. The Ethiopian famine had gone but Bob remains, active on behalf of other African peoples in need.
Now, everyone talks about Africa and the world worries afresh about her future. The figures official fact sheet on Africa says it all! While Africa’s whole Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased from US $ 325 billion in 1980 to $559 billion in 2002, South Korea’s GDP alone increased from $115 billion to $712 billion for the same year. Records show that 315 million Africans live on less than $1 a day while the average income in the UK is $100 a day for men and $63 for women.
Far from rising, Africa’s share of world trade has declined from 2.4% in 1990 to 2.0% by 2003 (her total trade increased 148.8% from 1984 to 2003 however). Asia’s share of global trade increased from 14.3% in 1990 to 20.4% in 2003. While many African countries hold no current population census figures, a basis for scientific planning, life expectancy varies considerably. For instance, the average expectancy in Gambia is pegged at 37 years, while it is 73 years in Tunisia. 44 million children in sub-Saharan Africa do not go to school. According to the figures, enrolment in education is as low as 19% in the Niger Republic.
Among the activities set up in Great Britain to deal with the issue of Africa is Africa 05, with a series of activities designed to create greater awareness of the African plight. The idea for an African awakening is now catching on slowly, but surely. In the third weekend of May, at the offices of the Mayor of London, Nigerians again led the way through an initiative of Nigerians in Diaspora Europe (NIDOE) – a seminar at which guest speakers included commissioner Fola Adeola of the African Commission, The NIDOE President, and Valsa Shah of the Directorate for International Development. The event afforded attendees an opportunity to network and brainstorm anew.
The African question climaxed in the summer with the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, under the chairmanship of Mr Blair. The agenda was fuelled by the Geldorf-led concerts to create awareness on a global scale. Marked by disruptions – violent protests in Stirling and a terror attack in London – the summit nevertheless went ahead and concluded with what was considered the most detailed aid package ever agreed to.
The Make Poverty History campaign had its critics, most notably Africans themselves. Controversy began early. The Live 8 Band show in aid of Africa, organized for July 2nd, and featuring stars like Bob Geldorf, Elton John and Madonna in London, and several mega-stars across the globe, including the Unites States, apparently couldn’t find a black artiste or group (in the United Kingdom) with ‘enough global appeal’ to participate. In a last ditch effort, Baba Maal and Yusuf Ndour were brought in to fill the glaring omission. The poorest turnout for concerts was in Africa itself, where South Africans struggled to make sense of the whole idea.
The Gleneagles summit and Live 8 concerts are now history. What lingers is the achievement in awareness created. It made sense to invite African presidents such as Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Thambo Mbeki of South Africa, and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi to the summit in Gleneagles. In a speech following Prime Minister Blair’s, Chief Obasanjo expressed himself satisfied with the summit. Time is yet to tell how the vision will hold.
Since Gleneagles, old problems have re-surfaced, with famine in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
Money helps in times of trouble, but true salvation lies in the heart and spirit of the people. In a continent where the first university was located (Timbuktu), where humankind is thought to have originated; where Egyptian arts and sciences influenced global civilization, the people dream of a return to their glorious past. The challenges persist and the privileged of the world need to get their hands dirty, move to the hard streets of Africa, live with the people, invest therein; to build parks and green fields, instill ethical education, remind Africans of their past and the need to think afresh, effect an evolution of the mind-set, of social work, co-operation, and also share with them the true secrets of the forebears which have made other continents great.
In the run-up to the British elections, Africans stood en masse behind the policies espoused by the Labour party. One would hope that Blair’s vision for Africa remains on course. In the last week of April, at a Labour party campaign rally organized to coincide with World Poverty Day, at which Bill Clinton spoke by satellite, Chancellor Brown’s address centered on planned British assistance to Africa, and especially to African children. Touching on the activities of the Commission for Africa, the Chancellor pledged his support for the Make Poverty History campaign. Finally, Mr Blair declared 2005 as the year for Africa. “This year can be the year that makes the difference,” he said. “People from Africa are not different from people here. We’re the same everywhere.’’
How right Mr. Blair is! Yes, Africa is more than the depressing image of hunger, war, disease and backwardness so often portrayed by the press. It is the conscience of the world, a mirror by which the entire universe must see its own self. It is the home of humankind, but needs the help of kindred spirits to rise from the ashes to a brand new day. It is the home of hope; of people still warm and natural in their chosen ways.
Well, almost always!
(Yemi Ogunshola is a London-based writer and critically acclaimed author)