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MARINA OTTAWAY: There has not been much good news from Africa recently. I mean objectively, if you look at positive stories there is not very much. Economic decline has been very real; conflict is very real; the lack of democracy in most countries is very real. So that most of what people read about Africa is quite negative.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, Africa’s myths and misconceptions.
OTTAWAY: Many Americans think of Africa as being a country and not, and not a continent. So it’s a very distant continent and that really does not, you know, is not very relevant to them.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. The ever-changing dynamics of the African continent are often misunderstood. That’s why scholar Marina Ottaway says many in the Western world are influenced by what she calls "myths, misconceptions and hasty conclusions" about Africa and its people. Ottaway, who is a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, outlines the common myths in a recent foreign policy article simply titled, "Africa." She says Africa is viewed by much of the world as a land of extremes.
OTTAWAY: In recent years one extreme has been the so-called basket case of the world. African countries are the poorest, are the most, the ones that have the least prospects for a future. The other extreme is the idea that Africa has turned around and that there has started to be a Renaissance in Africa.
MC HUGH: You identify a number of misconceptions or myths that may or may not be true of Africa today. The first one is, "African instability is the legacy of artificial colonial borders."
OTTAWAY: Yes. And I think that is a real red herring. Because while there is no doubt that Africa’s borders were designed by colonial powers who sat around a table in Berlin and drew lines on a map, the fact is that there is no such a thing as natural borders for any country. Most borders were the result of conquest, were the result of historical accident—who won a war or lost a war when—so that there is hardly any border in the world that does not cut across ethnic groups, that does not divide people of the same religion, that does not enclose minorities within the boundaries and so on. And so Africa is really not an exception.
MC HUGH: How is France, in terms of its power remaining in Africa?
OTTAWAY: I think it depends very much on whom you ask. I think there is, if you look at the United States Department of State, there is still very much of a sense that Africa, that France does not have a positive influence in Africa, that the French have been very cavalier in terms of supporting regimes that are not democratic just because they are friendly to France. In reality I think all countries have done the same thing in Africa. The United States after all, together with France and Belgium, was one of the supporters of the regime of Mobutu in Zaire for many years. So I think first of all we are not in a particular good position to cast the first stone on this. And secondly, there is no evidence as far as I can see that the former French colonies, which are of course the countries where France has intervened more regularly since independence, are any worse off than the former British colonies or Belgian colonies or any other country, as a matter of fact.
MC HUGH: Myth Number Two: "A new generation of African leaders is committed to economic reform and democracy."
OTTAWAY: There has been a big debate, beginning around, oh probably ‘94-’95, on whether or not African—there was a number of African countries that was governed by a new generation of leaders. The ones were mostly, the leaders were most often mentioned in this group were the President of Eritrea, the President of Ethiopia, the President of Uganda. Other people went further, but that was the hard-core essentially of the new, of the new African leaders. Many, I think, essentially misinterpreted what these new African leaders were. Because they were represented by many as democrats. I would argue that they were essentially nationalists who were out there trying to strengthen their state, to rebuild their states, to create a strong states in the wake of states that had collapsed. But they have varying degrees of commitment to economic reform. And I would argue almost a zero commitment to democratic reform.
MC HUGH: Myth Number Three: "The African Renaissance has come and gone."
OTTAWAY: I think the greatest myth is that there was an African Renaissance. The African Renaissance was very much wishful thinking. What we have seen in, during the ‘90s, is first of all a number of African countries that started an economic turn-around. Africa probably hit rock bottom in terms of economic performance during the 1980s. And there has been a slow revival in, not—by no means in all countries, but certainly in a small number of countries. I think it’s far too early to talk about a renaissance. There is certainly no economic boom like Indonesia experienced or Thailand or some of the East Asian countries experienced. I think the sense that the Renaissance is gone is also largely a myth, because it’s based on a newer interpretation of what was going on. I would argue simply that what we are discovering now is that the Renaissance was a figment of our imagination. And what you have is very halting and uneven progress in some African countries.
MC HUGH: Now Africa remains a hot spot for conflict. Is the conflict today different than it was 20 years ago?
OTTAWAY: Yes, I think it is changing in the sense that 20 years ago African countries still pretty much respected each other’s borders. In other words they lived by the rules of the Organization of African Unity. They required countries not to intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries. What we are seeing now is conflict that spills across the borders. And I think that is the result of the fact that so many African governments are very weak, that they do not maintain control over their own territories. So that their neighbors sometimes intervene in self-defense, for example, to prevent opposition groups from organizing in the neighboring state and launching attacks on their territory.
MC HUGH: Keeping that in mind, is peace even possible across the continent?
OTTAWAY: I think there are some parts of the continent that are going to remain hot areas for a long time to come, and Central Africa is one of them. The main problem in Central Africa is the largest country there, what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo—which used to be Zaire, of course—is that this huge country, it really has totally disintegrated. There are, probably for 15 years now there has not been a government that has been able to govern the country. There are, most regions are not even—even before the war—were not connected to Kinshasa except by air. There were no roads any longer. There was no real infrastructure. And as a result you have this tremendous vacuum of power in the region. And that is, and until that problem is solved there is going to be continuing conflict in that area. A#çD MC HUGH: Can you define for us the word "tribe"? And why it is so confusing to policy makers?
OTTAWAY: The word "tribe," if you take the real anthropological term, of the meaning of the term, denotes not only an ethnic group—that is a group of people that outsiders find to have common characteristics—but the word tribe denotes a group of people that also have, first of all feel that they belong to the same group, and most importantly, that have a sort of political organization. So that for example, if you talk about—I don’t know—a country like Yemen, which is homogeneously Arab in terms of its ethnicity, and people talk a lot about the tribes—there is a big problem with tribes in Yemen. And what it means is that there are local groups, that are in fact politically organized, that they recognize certain chiefs, that they, essentially they are mini-states within the state, if I can put it this way. And that is the real meaning of the word "tribe." In the African context what is most often defined as a tribe nowadays is a group which has been defined as such from the outside, that does not have a political structure, that does not have its own political identity. And in that sense the term "tribe" is really a misnomer.
MC HUGH: Myth Number Four: "African must take more responsibility for their own problems."
OTTAWAY: I don’t think that’s a myth. I think that is a reality, as a matter of fact. Mostly because nobody else is going to take responsibility for them, whether or not morally it’s the right thing to say, that Africans need to take more responsibility. Some people make the argument that colonial powers have a responsibility for what is happening in Africa now because after all, they were the ones who set up the African states that exist and so on. Whether or not you accept that argument I think the evidence is there that outsiders are not going to intervene to solve African problems. And therefore the Africans have no choice but trying to do something themselves.
MC HUGH: Myth Number Five: "Africa is a major financial burden for the international community."
OTTAWAY: I think that idea confuses two different issues. African countries are the most donor-dependent in the world. In other words, the ratio of foreign aid to internally generated revenue for African governments is the highest in the world. They are the most aid-dependent countries. That does not mean though, they are a major burden on the international community, because African countries—what is a very large percentage of the budget of an African country is still a small amount in absolute terms, because African countries are so poor. So that altogether the total amount of aid that goes to Africa, it’s not so huge in absolute terms.
MC HUGH: Number Six: "Globalization is by-passing Africa."
OTTAWAY: That is true to some extent. If you look at the objective indicators in terms of trade, if you look in terms of numbers of lines and so on, they are very low. It is becoming now possible, despite all this; Africa is better connected to the rest of the world even 10 years ago. I find, for example, that I can now set up a joint project with an African research institution, for example, because most of these institutions are now connected to the Internet. I can reach them. Ten years ago you had to rely on bad telephone lines, on the mail that never got delivered—it was impossible to cooperate with them. So in that sense Africa certainly is becoming better connected.
The final dimension of this connection to the global world is a bit more difficult to measure. And it is the fact that we don’t understand how much the information which is transmitted on these relatively few lines to the outside world—be it a telephone or e-mail or whatever—how much of that information then spread throughout African societies, through traditional means. Africans, every expatriate who has lived in Africa knows that there may not be telephone, there may not be much in terms of radio or anything else, but people know what’s going on. Because it, information traveled by word of mouth. And what I’m finding going back to Africa, for example, in a place like Ethiopia, I was very struck by that last summer when I was there. The number of people on e-mail is very small. But once a person receives the message from Washington, then that message is passed on. So that the next day in Addis Ababa everybody knows what transpired, you know, in a conversation between the Ethiopian Ambassador and the Ethiopian expatriate community in Washington, for example. Or if President Clinton made any remark on Africa people know the next day and throughout the streets of Addis Ababa, and that information has come through the Internet. And then spread through what people call the bush telegraph.
MC HUGH: What will it take to bring Africa to the modern level that say we are here in the United States?
OTTAWAY: It’s difficult to answer. Because if Africa were to go through the same route of starting with the telephone—you have to say starting with the telegraph and then the telephone and so on—then it would take half a century probably. But countries are leapfrogging. New technology is allowing countries to leapfrog. And I think the question at this point is more whether or not ways, governments are willing to relinquish their monopolies on communications; whether for example they are willing, as it is beginning to happen in some countries, to bring in foreign, to privatize their telephone companies, for example. And that usually brings in investment and the introduction of modern technology. And therefore a tremendous leap forward in terms of communication. So there are political decisions at stake here.
PORTER: Coming up, more from Marina Ottaway on the myths and misconceptions of Africa.
OTTAWAY: Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia certainly has no interest in Africa and it’s not a threat in any case, the, even the political interest of the United States has decreased.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MC HUGH: Myth Number Seven: "South Africa is the engine that will modernize the continent."
OTTAWAY: That was the hope when South Africa, when apartheid came to an end in South Africa and South Africa was reintegrated into the rest of the continent. That I think at this point is wishful thinking. Because although the South African economy is much, much larger than that of essentially of the rest of Africa combined—I mean it’s totally out of scale compared to the rest of the African economies—South Africa has enormous problems domestically. Because the South African economy was very impressive when essentially it only had to support 13-14% of the population that is white. And it supported that group very well while the rest of the population lived in misery. Now that the economy has to try to absorb the other 86% of the population and try to raise their standard of living, and it’s already having a great deal of trouble just coping with the internal problem. So I think it is going to be quite a long time before the South African economy can be the engine that pulls the rest of the continent.
MC HUGH: Well, Nelson Mandela is now out of office and we have new leadership in South Africa. How will that change the future of South Africa?
OTTAWAY: It depends on whether or not, on a number of things. The first one is whether the new leader can—Thabo Mbeki—the new President, can win the trust of the international community. If he convinces the international community that one, he can maintain law and order, and two, that he is not going to cave in to the demands of the labor unions so that the cost of labor is not going to increase too much—the cost of labor is already rather high in South Africa compared to like the cost of labor in East Asia, for example. So if Thabo can maintain control on the labor unions and prevent further escalation then it is possible that a lot of foreign investment is going to come to South Africa and that the foreign economy is going to turn around and that may make a difference. It’s too early to tell right now. We are still in the early days of the Mbeki administration and I think it probably will take—I would think it would take at least another year to see whether or not the international—the business community—reacts positively to his presidency.
MC HUGH: What would you consider the brightest spots on the African continent?
OTTAWAY: It depends on whether you are talking about the brightest parts economically or the brightest parts politically. From an economic point of view there are some African countries that have done reasonably well. By, and by that I mean that they have not suffered major, major regression essentially. And those are countries like Kenya, like the Ivory Coast, Botswana and Mauritius, of course, which if you want to consider Mauritius really an African country, then Mauritius is probably the brightest spot on the African continent. A lot of people have trouble thinking of Mauritius as really part of Africa. As you know it’s an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that’s populated partly by Chinese, partly by Indians, partly by Africans. It was uninhabited when it was discovered, so it’s a very strange hybrid and it’s not a typical African country. But if you leave aside Mauritius you have some countries—the countries I mentioned that are doing fairly well from an economic point of view. You could add to that list Mozambique, that, which has experienced a spectacular turnaround in the last few years.
If you look at the political situation the countries that are doing better politically are not necessarily the ones that are doing better economically. A country like Ghana, for example, is probably doing reasonably well in terms of political transformation. There are still a lot of question marks but it has come a long way since the early ‘80s. And yet economically it is not doing well at all, despite a very high amount of foreign aid that it has received. So it is difficult to point to any one country and say, "This is an African country which has made it both politically and economically."
MC HUGH: Where are some of the dimmest spots.
OTTAWAY: They are the conflict areas. I think Sierra Leone is certainly one of the dimmest spots. Parts of Somalia, although perhaps it’s less dim now than it was, than it was in the, you know, six or seven years ago. And certainly then the eastern Congo and the Great Lakes region in general. Because these are areas—and Angola—because these are areas where conflict is likely to continue for a long time, where the population is becoming increasingly impoverished. They are living at bare subsistence level. And there are really no prospects for a quick turnaround.
MC HUGH: Where does Rwanda fit in?
OTTAWAY: Rwanda is, can perhaps be described as being balanced on the, on a knife’s edge. Because it, after the genocide of 1994 when oh, somewhere between 800,000 and a million people were killed, were massacred, out of a population of 7 million—I mean, it’s a staggering percentage of the population—since 1994 the country has stabilized. And right now it is relatively peaceful. It is still a country that faces an explosive situation. Because the government now, it’s a Tutsi government. The Tutsi’s are only about 14% of the population. If the Tutsi’s lose control they are going to be massacred again and they know it very well. Which means that the government is not going to open up, it’s not going to be democratized, and it’s not going to allow elections to take place. Because if you have elections probably the Hutu Party—let me withdraw the probably—certainly the Hutu Party is going to win the elections and Tutsi would feel themselves, would be totally defenseless once again. So that is a country that has kind of stabilized but it cannot move forward and it’s difficult to know how it is going to move forward.
MC HUGH: In your opinion, how do most Americans view the African continent?
OTTAWAY: I think most Americans know very little about the African continent. And I think that they are probably divided into two groups. On one side you have the majority of the white population and probably even a small number of blacks that are relatively indifferent to, to Africa. They consider it a very distant country that—country, sorry—very distance continent. In fact, many Americans think of Africa as being a country and not, and not a continent. So it’s a very distant continent and that really does not, you know, is not very relevant to them. And then on the other side you have a part of the African-American population who, on the other hand, takes a very positive view of Africa. There is perhaps almost a, the opposite myth of Africa as a continent with a great deal of potential if only it was given, it was given a chance.
MC HUGH: What do you think influences the perceptions of Americans and the rest of the world about Africa?
OTTAWAY: The United States has very few interests in Africa. The US present economic interests in Africa are very minor. Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists the strategic interests are very limited. So that essentially Africa makes the news only when something bad goes on. So that what gets reported is the famines and the you know, and the wars and the conflicts and the killings and so on and so forth. You know, if I can defend the press for a moment, there has not been much good news from Africa recently. I mean objectively, if you look at positive stories there is not very much. Economic decline has been very real; conflict is very real; the lack of democracy in most countries is very real. So that most of what people read about Africa is quite, quite negative.
MC HUGH: You mentioned the fact that the United States has very little interest in Africa. How would you define US-African relations?
OTTAWAY: Very low key. The United States, as you well know, is not, was not a colonial power in Africa. The only African country, with which it really had strong relationship before 1960, when most African countries started coming to independence, was Liberia, which was founded by American slaves returning to Africa. So, and even after 1960, as a result of that, you don’t have large American investments in African countries, you don’t have large plantations, there has not been a major presence in the mining sector and so on. So that, and not very much has happened in Africa since the 1960s to encourage American investors to invest there. So economically the relations are not all that important.
Which does not mean that they are not in existence. I mean, you find sometimes that there are curious little pockets. You’ll find that where some town in the Midwest, for example, has a plant that will export a lot to the Africa, for the African market, so that you may find these little pockets where Americans really have a vested interest in what’s happening in Africa. But that’s a relatively rare.
Politically, the United States was in, concerned about Africa in the days of the Cold War. Because they were, did not want the Soviet Union to establish a strong presence there. Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia certainly has no interest in Africa and it’s not a threat in any case, the, even the political interest of the United States has decreased.
MC HUGH: But should we take a bigger interest?
OTTAWAY: I think for humanitarian reasons, yes. From the, in terms of US national interest I would say at this point, probably no. I am an Africanist, I wish I could say, yes we should take, it is in our to take more interest. I don’t think—we are getting from Africa what we want. We are getting the oil we want from African countries. It’s one thing that many Americans don’t know is that the United States imports as much oil, almost as much oil from African countries as it does from Saudi Arabia, for example. I mean it is. But that, that oil is not threatened. Nigeria is not going to sell its oil to anybody else; Angola, it’s not going to sell its oil to anybody else. So that it’s not something that, to force the United States to pay close attention to African countries. And this is the reality at the present time.
MC HUGH: That is Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her most recent book is Africa’s New Leaders: Democracy or State Reconstruction?. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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