There seems to be a new wave of Afro-optimism that focuses heavily on “re-branding” Africa. One favorite slogan is “Africa rising.” I am wary of this trend, partly because I tend to problematic-ize everything. I’m not an afro-pessimist. Rather, I seek to add to a body of nuanced representations and understandings of Africa and Africans. While I am interested and invested in the future of the continent, I am not interested in PR. That is not my agenda.
Before flying to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea for the Sullivan Foundation’s Summit, I asked myself:
- How many conferences, summits, delegations, backdoor meetings can we have until “Africa rises?”
- How do we measure “Africa Rising”? Do we measure it by GDP? By the continued export/exploitation of natural resources? By the continued application of Western models of development upon postcolonial states?
- Does “Africa is Rising” refer to the growth of middle classes in African countries? Or the rise of The African Consumer™?
- Does “Africa is Rising” mean that the neocolonial restrictions on postcolonial state expenditures in the public/social sector are lifted?
- Does “Africa is Rising” mean more jobless growth in a continent with a very young population, and is on the verge of its population doubling?
- Does “Africa is Rising” mean the continent makes up more than 1% of global internet traffic exchange?
- Does “Africa is Rising” merely signify a discursive shift in representations of Africa that mask the continued exploitation of its resources?
And the question that underlies nearly all of the above:
- What is the end of Development? What does “Sustainable Development” actually sustain?
I did not get any answers to these questions. I did find that nearly all of the African heads of state who spoke at the Summit railed against African states’ underdevelopment, but made no mention of the financial system in which they operate, nor of the compulsory disinvestment in the social sectors, privatization and liberalization of their economies mandated by Bretton Woods organizations (These conditions are the opposite of what Western European nation-states did in their developmental stages). There is only outrage against the most tangible factors- a historical present of colonialism.
There was also outrage over the continued exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, but little mention of government complicity in that exploitation. Yes, it is true that colonization oriented African economies to be complementary and extractive, and it is true that neoliberal, neo-colonial policies required the retention of this orientation, but to ignore the role of postcolonial African governments in the continued exploitation is to make a serious omission. This consciousness seems to have one eye looking back, maintaining a vantage point of a present past, while looking forward in a myopic sense that prioritizes immediate gains from resource exploitation as a development path.
The truth is, many of the structures in the government complex in Sipopo, Equatorial Guinea retain the essence of their colonial designs- literally and figuratively. The grand complexes borrow heavily from Spanish architecture, while African statesmen in tailored European suits decry the evils of those who shaped the fabric of their governance.
In a speech, the former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, expressed a need for education, empowerment and employment of Africa’s youth to be a part of development. Sudanese Vice President Dr. Elhaj Adem Yousif, made calls for reparations in the form of technology to Africa and the Diaspora, suggesting that Diasporans mount a media campaign to persuade government officials to issue reparations to repay the losses of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. He went on to assure us that the Sudanese government has taken steps to connect Sudanese citizens and immigrants and mobilize Diaspora remittances. Of course, my mind flitted to Sudan and South Sudan’s conflicting nationality laws that leave hundreds of thousands of people stateless.
In all of this, I could not ignore the jarring contrast between the opulent state buildings in Sipopo and the neighborhoods Equatoguineans in the surrounding cities called home. Small, densely situated 1-room structures housed families as large as 8 people. Some were only partially roofed, while others stood on platforms at the foot of hills prone to flooding in the constant rains. Many of the Equatoguineans I met were entrepreneurial- taxi drivers and small business owners. They had to be, as the oil sector, which accounts for 78 percent of the nation’s GDP, only employs 4 percent of the nation’s workers. Meanwhile projections show that from 2010 to 2020, between 25 000 and 49 000 young Equatoguineans will enter the labour market each year.
What does “Africa is rising” mean? Does this catchphrase have any material basis?
(I purposefully leave this open-ended, because the question is open-ended.)
Also: Another worthwhile piece by a fellow attendee of the Sullivan Foundation Summit in Equatorial Guinea