“Africa is a sleeping giant that is about to be awoken” Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations told an audience in Yaounde, Cameroon, this week. Speaking at a conference on the future of Africa Mr Annan was among several prominent personages – including two Nobel Peace Prize winners, several heads of state and a couple of former French Prime Ministers – who had come together for to discuss the issues facing a continent which has traditionally been a source of bad rather than good news. As Asha-Rose Migiro, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations put it: “Too often we learn about how Africans die but not how they live”.
Whilst the conference entitled “Africa, An Opportunity for the World” did not shy away from the challenges facing Africa, its primary focus was on how the continent can realise its enormous potential, both in terms of natural and human resources. With a population of over a billion, vast amounts of fertile land and abundant mineral deposits, the 54 nations that make up the continent should be an economic and political force on the global stage but instead Africa produces just 3 per cent of the world’s GDP and has little political influence. Rather than fuelling development, revenues from Africa’s resources have failed to significantly elevate the lives of an important proportion of her people and have too often been squandered. “As we celebrate our successes we must not forget the hundreds of millions of Africans who live in poverty and insecurity with inadequate access to clean water, food, and health services,” said Mr Annan.
Mohamed el-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, highlighted the irony that so many African’s go without power despite the fact that the continent has huge reserves of oil and gas and as well as great potential for solar, geo-thermal and hydro-electric energy production. “It is little wonder that some still call it the Dark Continent,” he said. The former Nobel Peace Prize winner was nevertheless optimistic that Africa can become a major political and economic player on the world stage and “a model of the type of world we’d like to leave for our children and grandchildren.” To achieve this he emphasised the need for Africa to take responsibility to resolve its problems.
“The number one priority is good governance,” el-Baradei said raising a theme that was echoed throughout the three day conference. “We can no longer turn a blind eye to corruption, nepotism and unconstitutional changes in governments,” Asha-Rose Migiro said to an audience which included several heads of state including conference host, Cameroonian President, Paul Biya who has been in power since 1982. Mr. Biya recently altered his country’s constitution to allow him to stand for a third term in office.
With Britain this week announcing its support for the expansion of the United Nations Security Council to include “African representation”, the discussion of Africa’s voice on the world stage was very timely. Mohamed el-Baradei was joined by Jean Ping President of the Commission of the African Union in calling for the need for Africa to have two permanent seats on the Security Council and even former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé agreed. “Africa must have its rightful place in the UN Security Council” said Juppe before adding mischievously: “But you say two countries. Which two countries?”
The conference also explored the emerging role of other nations in Africa, particularly China whose business interests in the continent at times collide with those of European countries. China now relies on Africa for over a third of its oil and has greatly expanded its activity across the continent. There are now more than 1000 Chinese companies operating in Africa and there is hardly a country on the continent that does not have a sizeable Chinese presence. China not only helps to provide infrastructural support but has also written off billions of dollars of African debt, provided soft loans and sold large numbers of arms. Alain Juppé raised some eyebrows when he said he welcomed Chinese, Indian and Brazilian companies in Africa. “You may find that surprising coming from a Frenchman, but I believe that new forms of cooperation will be a win-win situation for Africa and all her trading partners.”
There is nevertheless some resentment directed towards the Chinese in Africa stemming from their failure to adequately use the local workforce and for breaches of environmental, health and safety standards. Jean Ping went so far as to say that the European Union remains Africa’s “preferred trading partner” and challenged the role China plays in Africa. “How can a country that does not respect human rights try and impose human rights standards on African countries?” he asked. If Professor Shao-Lei Feng, a specialist in international relations from Shanghai was perturbed by Mr Ping’s outburst, he did not show it. “Debates and disagreements between different player are inevitable,” he told me diplomatically. “We need to increase mutual understanding between Africa and China and as well as between China and other nations.”
Another key issue discussed in conference was that of peace and security. Although the conference noted that levels of violence across Africa have dropped by nearly 60 per cent in the past two decades, violence still disrupts the lives of millions of Africans. Violence results in instability not just in those countries where fighting occurs but spills into neighbouring nations whose fragile social structures are disrupted by resultant migration. “There can be no development in Africa without security and there can be no security in Africa without development,” said Kofi Annan.
Michael Chertoff, former head of Homeland Security under the George Bush administration, referred to the increasing danger of Islamic extremism in Africa. “Terrorists live in the seams between countries,” he said explaining why the unguarded frontiers of the Sahel are attractive to terrorists. The arrest last month of 24 alleged members of an al Qaeda cell in Morocco and the unearthing this week of a plot this to attack the World Cup in South Africa shows the potential reach of Islamic terrorism in Africa. But it is in the the Sahel region of Africa, where terrorism is of the greatest concern.
Despite the many challenges facing Africa the mood of the conference was foward-looking and cautiously optimistic. Timed to coincide with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Cameroon’s independence, certain amout of retrospection was however inevitable. On the final day, Mohamed el Baradei sounded a serious note: “Africa has been liberated as states…But many Africans have not been liberated as a people.”