'Africa rising' threatened by extremism, power-corrupted leaders and climate change

The Gambia's Yahya Jammeh had to be forced out by the Economic Community of West African States after losing in a democratic election. (AFP)

The Gambia's Yahya Jammeh had to be forced out by the Economic Community of West African States after losing in a democratic election. (AFP)

Perceptions of Africa changed in recent years, from a continent of wars, famines and entrenched poverty to a focus on “Africa rising” and an “African 21st century” averaging 4.5% economic growth, according to the World Bank. 

But new challenges threaten to dampen such prospects, a matter to explore today, Africa Day under this year’s theme: Harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youths.

First, the rise of violent extremism in the form of terror groups operating in East, West and North Africa does not seem to be going away anytime soon.

Despite concerted effort by the African Union’s peacekeeping mission Amisom – comprising troops from Kenya, Uganda and Burundi with the assistance of United States - al-Shabab remains the greatest security threat not only to Somalia but to the whole East African Community. The deteriorating situation in South Sudan, the continent and world’s newest state whose appetite for war seems to surpass that of peace, compounded by the AU’s failure to provide decisive leadership to end the atrocities, makes East Africa largely insecure.

In West Africa, Boko Haram, notorious for abducting the Chibok girls three years ago, is still to be tamed. So powerful it is that the region’s powerhouse, Nigeria, where it is based, resorted to negotiating with the group and has somehow capitulated to the group’s earlier demand for the release of their imprisoned leaders using the innocent girls as ransom.
Eighty of the girls were freed last month, adding to 20 released earlier. A few others escaped, but came back as mothers with children – which gives insight to their life in captivity.

North Africa has remained largely as it was since the Spring Revolution and eventual demise of Libya’s strongman, Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which left a vacuum that has since been occupied by the globally networked al-Qaeda group. Its operations led from there have not only rendered Libya a failed state but have destabilised other countries such as Mali.

The rise of violent extremism cannot just be wished away. It requires concerted local, national, regional and global efforts not only to deal with the existing terror groups tormenting the Motherland and the world, but also a deliberate crafting and implementation of policies, along with complementary short- and long-term interventions that target would-be terrorists among vulnerable groups, including the youth, to change their attitudes and make them responsible citizens.

The second major challenge is climate change as a result of global warming. The fragile Horn of Africa region is enduring the effects of a drought induced famine that is forcing the United Nations to intervene to save millions whose livelihoods have been destroyed and now rely on food aid from the international donor community. Most of Southern Africa is still recovering from a crippling drought that affected the region last year. And it’s not out of the woods yet. The Western Cape in South Africa has since been declared a disaster area, reeling under the worst drought in more than a hundred years.

Research has since established that Africa will be the worst affected by climate change. That means what we are experiencing is only the beginning of the worst to come. Accompanying this new reality will be increased conflicts for resources such as water and pastures. This is the cause of the third major challenge – migration - resulting in a rising number of refugees.

Migration is already a problem, with many dying trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a daily basis. Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26% of the world’s refugee population, with more than 31-million Africans living outside the countries of their birth. Refugee flows not only place a burden on economies of host countries and citizens, but have generated xenophobic violence.

These new challenges add to Africa’s perennial problems of corruption, poor governance and violent conflicts. The Central African Republic is still riddled with ethnic violence and the Darfur region of Sudan is now a forgotten crisis. The Great Lakes region remains volatile, with the not so Democratic Republic of Congo on knife-edge because its long-time leader, Joseph Kabila, has been intoxicated by power. He is emulating his peers in the region where neighbours Denis Sassou Nguesso in Congo, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Paul Nkurunziza in Burundi and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame are living proof of the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely through invoking the doctrine of third-termism.

But it is not all gloom. Recent events in The Gambia, where long-time dictator Yahya Jammeh had to be forced out by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) after losing in a democratic election proved that when there is political will the concept of “African solutions to African problems” can yield results. One hopes other regions such as the Southern African Development Community would act with such decisiveness. This will be put to test in just over a week when the perennial troublemaker of the region, Lesotho – a small mountain kingdom with a mountain of problems – goes to another election in the quest for political stability. Zimbabwe has elections in 2018, where Robert Mugabe, the oldest head of state in the world, will be a candidate at the age of 94.

One would hope Africa fully utilises its abundant natural resources to improve the welfare of its people, particularly the youth. This can improve by harnessing the energy of its bulging youth population – a dividend that can only be ignored at the continent’s own peril. The AU’s ambitious vision for 2063, dubbed “The Africa We Want”, will be experienced only by today’s youth on a continent where more than 40% of the population is below the age of 18.

Dr Webster Zambara is a senior project leader of the Justice and Peacebuilding Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.

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