Africa is a baffling continent sitting on mounds of paradoxes. The paradox of rich but poor continent is a familiar theme. It is rich in human and natural resources; yet its 54 independent nation-states are dependent on other less divine-favoured countries to even feed their own people.
Africa is a sick but lucky continent. Its paradoxes attract economic and other experts who periodically diagnose its ailments and go on to offer sane expert prescriptions on how to heal it. The problem, and this is one of the many paradoxes, is that the continent continues to get sicker. It is either the failure of the diagnoses or the ineffectiveness of the prescriptions or both.
The question is why?
Dr Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, was in town recently and addressed that all important question at TheGuardian’s 40th anniversary lecture. I was not at the lecture but from what I have read of his speech, he spoke truth to the powerful African big men in khaki or agbada, each of whom, like their illustrious predecessors, came to power on the promises of changing the depressing African narrative and are likely to follow the same path and leave their various countries worse, much worse, basket cases than they found them.
African leaders feed their people on tasty, salted promises. Those promises turn to ashes in the mouths of their people but enhance the personal fortunes of their political leaders. Nothing much is new in trying to unwrap the paradoxes that cripple the continent. Call it the curse of Africa or the curse of its leaders at all levels.
Should the continent be this poor and this dependent? Adesina said it should not be this poor because it has “…$6.2 trillion in natural resources.” I have been told by experts who should know that every country on the continent has some precious solid mineral resources that should frighten away poverty from approaching its doors. Add to that the liquid natural resources, as in crude oil; then add to that the immense arable lands that stretch from the north to the south and the east to the west but yet lie largely fallow because the instant wealth in corrupt practices in importing food from other lands trumps transforming our agriculture from the age-old peasant agricultural practices to modern agricultural methods.
While mouthing their traditional promises of modern agricultural development and productivity, our leaders watched the Kano groundnut pyramids disappear; they saw the Gusau cotton ginneries die; they saw the cocoa plantations wither in the heat of wilful lack of government assistance to the cocoa farmers; they saw our palm produce yield place to bleached palm oil from Malaysia. We squander our resources and we squander our riches and revel in the cosmetics of progress and development exemplified by conspicuous living.
We can end poverty on the continent, according to the African top banker, “if we manage our natural resources well.” That, really, is the crux of the matter. We are where we are because the African big men find it easier and more personally lucrative to mismanage our abundant resources rather than manage them well. If they manage those resources well, their people would be pulled out of poverty and thus change the narrative of national development in ways that water down the power of the powerful leaders. Think of the implications for the big men if there is no one to feed on the crumbs that fall from their tables.
African big men are afraid of this. Their power lies in constantly widening the gulf that separates the rich and the powerful from the poor and the powerless. Poverty forces the poor to be dependent on the rich. It makes the African big men safe in their cocoons. As long as the poor remain poor, deprived, and dependent, so long do they see their oppressors as their benefactors.
The complexity of the African paradoxes befuddles the best brains in the business. Often the prescriptions offered by the experts amount to either a rehash of what had been said time and time again or are dressed up in intellectual robes. Adesina did a bit of both and wrapped them in exhortations in his lecture. He said: “We simply need to pull up our socks, stamp out corruption and manage our resources in the interest of our countries and our people.”
He also said: “Africa needs the right policies, investments, infrastructure, logistics and financing… We must make sure this is driven by a highly skilled, dynamic, and youthful work force.”
I am sure his listeners had heard all that before. To be fair, it was not possible for Adesina to offer us something radically new to help us chip at the granite of paradoxes that define Africa and many of its 54 nation-states. As a social scientist, he could not point us to prayers and miracles. He knows we are talking of planning and focus. We are talking of solutions to our problems that have been ignored by the African big men because it serves their individual purposes to do so. Few things must be more disturbing than the narrative of a continent or a country with so much potential to rise to greatness and yet bogs itself down in the inertia of potentials.
Perhaps, we might feel better if we know that some African countries are doing so much better than others. Botswana and Rwanda are held up as examples of African countries on the cusp of delivering on the promises of democracy in the challenges of modern nation-building. Botswana is rated as the most stable democracy on the continent. Rwanda, on the other hand, appears to be caught up in the cult of the indispensability of President Paul Kagame. We have seen the damage this cult has done to the continent and its people. Kagame has done well in pulling the nation from the trauma of the mindless slaughter of some years ago. He can do better than transform himself into a god without the shelf life of mortals.
Adesina homed in on his country, Nigeria, a country with the potential to lead Africa and be a beacon to black people throughout the world. It blew it. Its paradox of rich but poor nation weakens our collective sense of national pride. Here is what Adesina said about our country, the giant of Africa:
“Saudi Arabia has oil, so does Nigeria. Kuwait has oil, so does Nigeria. Qatar has abundant gas, as does Nigeria and other countries. Yet, Nigeria is the country with the largest share of its population living below the extreme poverty line in 2023 in Africa. Clearly, there is something fundamentally wrong in our management, or rather mismanagement of our natural resources.”
His last statement goes without saying. The last time someone counted, 80 per cent of our population existed below the poverty line. Many things are fundamentally wrong with the management of our human and natural resources in a manner that benefits a few and deprives the many. Our young people prefer to go to Europe, the United States, and the Middle East to wash dishes and toilets rather than remain in a country that denies them the opportunities to which their education, skill and experience entitle them. That through acts of commission by its leaders and their business compradors, this giant of Africa with incredible natural and human resource endowments should have been brought down to its knees in 2017 as the poverty capital of the world qualifies as a reverse miracle.