Is Africa’s plight permanent?

I don’t know how you will react to the news report below; but mine was to immediately disregard it as one of the nine days’ wonders that irritate people for nothing. Upon a deeper reflection, however, I decided not to. The report entails more than its being a mere figment of somebody’s wishful thinking. It reveals something to prove that we in Africa lack the benefits of good judgement and endeavours that have helped other countries develop. That’s the motivation for this opinion piece.

Bangladeshi companies say they have leased thousands of hectares of farmland in Africa as part of their efforts to avoid future food shortages. Two Bangladeshi companies have already signed deals to lease unused cultivable land in Uganda, Tanzania, and Gambia. Another agreement to lease around 30,000 hectares for 99 years will be signed with the Tanzanian government later this week, according to a BBC news report.
The Bangladeshi officials claim that they are going for land in those countries because African countries have huge amounts of unused cultivable land. At the same time, they say that Bangladesh has the manpower and expertise to produce staple crops all year round. Bangladesh is the world’s fourth largest producer of rice and it harvested around 34 million tonnes last year.
Under the plans, the Contract Farming System will enable Bangladeshi companies to get at least 60% of the produce. In return, Bangladesh will train African farmers in rain-fed rice cultivation, seed conservation, and irrigation. It is hoped that the new arrangement will increase food productivity and enable the country’s (meaning, Bangladesh’s) expanding workforce to be deployed in Africa’s farming sector.
Listen to Wahidur Rahman, a senior Bangladeshi foreign ministry official: “Basically, this idea is mainly for proper management of our food security… We are thinking of expanding our agriculture, but we do not have enough land to cultivate. Because of this, we are thinking Africa may be the destination for our agriculture production.”

I am persuaded to conclude that Africa is underdeveloped, not because the continent lacks the natural and human resources, but just because its people lack vision and the urgency of purpose. What is wrong with the governments of these African countries for them to cede land to the Bangladeshi companies and not their own citizens to use for food production? Forget about the fact that those countries might get 40% of the produce. The fact is that the Bangladeshis stand to gain more from this venture than the Africans. The venture will not only help Bangladesh tackle its food insecurity problem but it will also provide work for its population. Are we in Africa so myopic as not to see things beyond our noses?

Indeed, in the midst of plenty, Africans are suffering the worst forms of privation because they don’t know how to tap into the natural and human resources that abound on the continent. Africa is the only continent whose people live in the most deplorable conditions ever recorded in contemporary times. No wonder that the continent is synonymous with every contemptible ailment or problem that the world knows.

The Bangladeshis are smart enough to exploit a major lapse. There is no optimal strategy for land use in Africa or systematic official support for farmers, which hampers food production to ensure food security. The problem is endemic and can be seen as part of the complications resulting from the haphazard manner in which things are done on the continent. Thus, the Bangladeshis want to take advantage of this lapse. And, as is to be expected, the African leaders have fallen for their bait.

Evidence confirms that Africa is the largest continent on the globe, which has every resource that the world needs. Ironically, though, the continent is rated as the poorest of the poor. Indeed, statistics show that the world’s poorest countries are in Africa. Some of them—Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Mali, Central African republic, and Ethiopia—are known for their natural and human resources that serve the interests of the developed world.

Although the new UNDP Poverty Index (MPI) shows that India is far poorer than Africa not just in number but also in intensity, we can’t say that Africans are better off. Just 8 Indian states contain more poor people than 26 poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa combined. What is surprising is not the number but the intensity because statistics provided by the Indian government show that there is much improvement in living standards. Woefully, living standards in Africa plunk.

According to the UNAIDS, more than 800 million people in Africa go to bed hungry every day, 300 million of whom are children. Of these 300 million children, only eight percent are victims of famine or other emergency situations.  Again, world poverty facts and statistics show that more than 90 percent of Africans are suffering from long-term malnourishment and micro-nutrient deficiency.
The picture is really gloomy. Evidence shows that despite a wealth of natural resources, African countries typically fall toward the bottom of any list measuring small size economic activity such as income per capita or GDP per capita. In many countries, GDP per capita is less than $200 U.S. per year, with the vast majority of the population living on much less. In addition, Africa’s share of income has been consistently dropping over the past century by any measure. In 1820, the average European worker earned about three times what the average African did. Now, the average European earns twenty times what the average African does.

In 2009, the 22 of 24 countries that were identified as having “Low Human Development” on the United Nations’ Human Development Index were located in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2006, for example, 34 of the 50 countries on the UN list of least developed countries are in Africa.  Isn’t this deplorable picture too depressing?

Talk about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Africa is regarded as the worst affected; raise the issue of civil wars, political instability, genocide, excruciating poverty, debilitating diseases, vices such as bribery and corruption, overpopulation, the shortest life expectancy rate on earth, very low per capita food production, and many other problems of underdevelopment, and Africa is the first to come to mind. Africans are scattered all over the world as either refugees fleeing the conflicts at home or desperate professionals (trained at home with the tax-payers’ money) leaving their countries as a result of the brain-drain phenomenon in search of so-called “greener pastures” elsewhere.

Talk about situations in which a country’s imports exceed its exports (which compounds the deficit problem), situations in which people in authority sell their national assets to foreigners for pittance, situations in which national leaders loot the countries’ coffers to buy or build luxury homes in foreign lands, situations in which governments collude with foreigners to dupe their own countries, situations in which government officials manipulate the system for ill-gotten money to deposit in the Swiss Bank (to boost Switzerland’s economy), and situations in which national politics is driven by negative tendencies such as nepotism, tribalism, and mismanagement of affairs, and you will not miss the mark. Africa ranks high in all these situations.

Talk about a continent with huge swathes of arable land whose people cannot produce food to support themselves, thus, forcing their governments to spend scarce foreign exchange to import common staples such as rice, corn, sorghum, fish, and meat, and Africa rises to the first slot. Africa is the burden of the World Food Programme and foreign countries that cannot stand by to see the people destroyed by famine.

About 50% of the African populations live in slums. From the outskirts of Johannesburg in South Africa to the interior of Kibera in Kenya (Africa’s largest and worst slum), life is “a living hell” for the people. Ghana too has its Sodom and Gomorrahs, Nimas, etc. because of the government’s ineptitude.

Indeed, the alarming rate at which Africans are contributing to the underdevelopment of their own countries (the continent, generally) is alarming. Within the context of these crisis situations, one may be tempted to say that Africa’s plight is, indeed, permanent. And I say so without any remorse or reservation!

The land deal with the Bangladeshis is one of the events that reveal clearly that Africans will continue to suffer privation, underdevelopment, subjugation, and disdain for as long as their leaders and the entire gamut of the citizenry fail to do what will uplift standards of living on the continent. Indeed, Africans are still saddled with severe economic and political problems because of their own shortsightedness. Even if they see the need to rise by their bootstraps, they cannot succeed just because they don’t know what to do. The going is still difficult because Africans have failed to realize that they cannot rise by their bootstraps without first having boots! They will choose to hand over the boots to foreigners instead.

Indeed, there is no justification for anybody to continue blaming the European colonial enterprise as the cause of Africa’s underdevelopment. We are the cause of our own doom. Decades after the European colonial powers freed the continent, many African countries are still struggling to be self-supporting in several respects. They continue to sag into squalor, sliding very fast into a quagmire that will entrap them till doomsday.

African countries cannot balance their budgets without input from the IMF/World bank and other “Shylock financial institutions,” which suggests that they are virtually subsisting on the goodwill of those forces. Many African countries cannot generate enough revenue to support their development agenda. Panhandling is the norm. Yet, in every conceivable way, they are not ashamed. African leaders lack vision and the administrative acumen to galvanize their people into doing what will move the continent forward. On the flip side, other countries know what to do to appropriate the continent’s resources. Why are we so mindless of how not to worsen our plight through self-created problems?

Why am I so diffident and critical—or condemnatory—of the continent and its millions of people? A good cause exists to warrant my disposition. It is inconceivable that despite their enormous natural and human resources, African countries are still wallowing in poverty and looking up to foreign countries for redemption. Many negative factors have combined to deepen Africa’s woes.

Unless the situation changes for the better, nothing will be more prophetic than these words that I stumbled upon in cyberspace: “Africa was poor, Africa is poor, and Africa will continue to be poor if we the Africans are not ready to change Africa. Africa will remain poor if Africans are not ready to make Africa rich.”

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor

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