Sunday, October 6, 2013

The African Winter

These days, eyes are focused on the Middle East. Iran. Syria. Egypt. Old structures crumble, new orders painstakingly attempt to take hold, counter-revolutions erupt. To external witnesses and people living in those conflict zones, it often seems a lost cause, like the myth of Sisyphus.

To them I say: patience. In forty odd years, things will be much more stable, as the dust will have settled, a new generation of leaders will be able to assert itself, and many conflicts will have died down.

Why I am so confident about some upcoming perpetual peace in the Middle East? There are a few factors that come into play: the geographical proximity with Europe, being located alongside critical trade routes, the societal foundations provided by Islam, the back and forth movement of peoples – migrants, businessmen, workers – between the West and the Middle East, the prosperous Middle Eastern diasporas living abroad, the rise of green energy technologies for starters. Mix it all together and leave it to sit for a certain time, and I am convinced that in proper time, the Middle East will become fairly stable.

In 2050, at this rate, the source of global instability will not be Middle East. It will be Africa, which will by then be home to roughly a billion people and the youngest population on the planet.

Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram, the LRA, M-23 and Al-Shabaab do not result from the aftershocks of a post-colonial Africa. They are fillers to a vacuum left by weak, failing and failed states. As the governmental power subsides because of mismanagement, incessant warfare and corruption, militias and other illegal groupings reap the spoils, feed on them and grow without limits. Based in hard-to-reach locales, their local influence grows – they provide an alternative to the young and the disenfranchised. Weak African governments find them embarrassing and they dismiss them, while Western powers largely ignore them because they are not a strategic threat to their current wants or needs. Somehow, the near takeover of Mali in late 2012 by terrorist militias, only stopped by a French military intervention, was not a strong enough signal that the current system is not working.

By 2050 the world will fully turn to Africa, the largest reservoir of untapped resources – be it oil, gold, medicinal plants or precious minerals. In that field, China has a massive head start and has long been exchanging its expertise and engineering teams in exchange for unsustainable, bargain-priced resource concessions. All the while, Western powers are notoriously complicit to similar schemes in the mining sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

What does Africa need then? It needs a middle class.

What struck me the most in my trips to sub-Saharan Africa is the ridiculous disparity between the rich and the poor. It’s not just a gap, it’s a massive canyon. The business and political elites maintain themselves in power for decades on end, ensuring a backyard playground for big powers – most notably France. This is all tied up nicely by big foreign aid packages which land in the pockets of the same old people, sweet business deals benefitting politicians that have been in power for decades. All the while deals are sealed in villa-fortresses of African leaders, far away from the eyes of an uneducated populace being lead on, year after year.

Such a system cannot carry on forever. You cannot say you love your country and agree to such bad terms. You cannot say you uphold a constitution when most of your people are illiterate. You cannot expect people to become rich when resources are practically given away and sent off as soon as they are extracted. Someday, there will be consequence.

Some day, this will backfire badly. Then we will see some of the most vicious militias in History, some of the most violent acts performed on human beings, all the while migrations flows will explode, states will become utterly chaotic, and the resources we need will become the poker chips of groups who want to harm us.

This will happen, unless we help to build a viable, strong middle class. A group in the citizenry who are literate, who can innovate, who can be taxed and participate in a healthy democracy.

African diasporas living abroad must be involved in developing their home countries. African populations themselves must be involved in this effort so that a middle class can emerge which is tailored to their realities and needs. Businesses must agree to give workers better pay and better living conditions. International help should be focused on developing infrastructures like roads, train tracks, airports, seaports, hydroelectric dams, solar farms, power grids. Big businesses should be given tax incentives by big powers to encourage training, mentorship, research and development in Africa so that they can reap even greater benefits down the road, in a sustainable way.

While all wonder what the fate of the Arab Spring will be, let us not forget that we must do all we can to avoid an African Winter down the road.

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