Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How Screwed is Africa?

By 2100, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to one-third of human beings. This is up from almost exactly a quarter right now. From a pure self-interest standpoint, this alone is reason to start paying more attention to a continent that has seen far more than its share of depradation. Africa has been subject to multiple challenges in the last century which have been extensively treated elsewhere: among them, global warming, which will expand the Sahel further into what used to be arable land; the ironic resource curse, which is already contributing to behind-the-scences tensions between the West and China, which is wasting no time putting down stakes in Africa's oil and ore deposits; and the even more ironic poison of no-strings-attached foreign aid, which has made things worse by creating corrupt hand-out dependent states.

What worries me the most is a trend that could organize Africa's endemic miasma of troubles into a true powderkeg as its population continues climbing. North Africa has long been Muslim, and in the post-colonial period sub-Saharan Africa has shifted consistently away from non-organized (tribal) religions to Christianity.

In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins details the changing face and distribution of "Southern" Christianity, a cross-denominational catch-all for sects of Christianity altered by their experience in the developing world, into forms those of us in the West barely recognize (for example, is Pentecostalism as practiced in Latin America a form of Catholicism? Protestantism? Something new? Is it even a relevant question?) Jenkins discusses the possibility of an epoch of crusades and jihads in the religious borderlands south of the Sahel - the African Thirty Years War.

Again, even from a purely cynical material self-interest standpoint, the echoes from such a conflict would be felt worldwide. We will still need copper and oil; conflicts in the Islamic world have a way of not staying put; and Western Christians will be part of a religion that is increasingly darker-complected than it is today. In the case of Nigeria, we don't have to wait until 2100 to see what results when the two waves of evangelical fervor meet:
Plateau State has the highest number of displaced people as a result of clashes between Christians and Muslim communities there. The predominantly Christian Tarok farmers consider the mostly Muslim Hausa cattle herders as outsiders, and accuse them of stealing land and trying to usurp political power. These had led to the burning down of 72 villages over between 2002 and the end of 2003. More than 1,000 people were killed in sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims in Jos, the Plateau State capital, in September 2001.

- GlobalSecurity.org, an independent American U.S. defense policy institute, April 2005

Stopping the diffusion of ideas, religious or otherwise, is ab initio a losing proposition. So is this just one more inevitable knife in Africa's back? Not necessarily. There are many countries in the world that have successfully integrated multiple evangelical traditions, and even ended the violence associated with them (as in Ireland) through neutral, secular institutions that promote and demand religious tolerance. Structural reforms in Africa must focus on building and expanding such institutions, or they're likely to see their efforts swept away in the twenty-first century by religious civil wars that further set back Africa's joining the Enlightenment. I understand that this is a tall order in a continent where educational levels are on average the lowest in the world, but the reinforcement of a secular order and religious tolerance must be part and parcel of all reform, or it will all be for naught.


Anonymous said...

Dude, I'm from Africa and I am telling you we are totally screwed as a continent unless something drastically changes for the better in our way of thinking as a community.

The way we are now, divided, is going to ensure the vicious cycle of corruption, exploitation and strife continues.

Michael Caton said...

Thanks for reading - do you think political and military umbrella organizations will help (AFRICOM, the AU, the Central/West African Franc zone)?

If Africa is truly hopeless from within, do you think more aggressive IMF/World Bank-induced reforms will help? What about China? Finally, would you support the establishment of charter cities - that is, local international enterprise zones, kind of like Hong Kong?


Many (both in the developing world and the West) regard that as neo-colonialism, but if done transparently in full view of the international community I think it's a win-win. I've been asked how I would feel with foreign powers setting up a trade zone in my country, and I'm fine with it - in fact I would even argue that in effect we already have this low-labor-cost places in the United States where foreign companies have built manufacturing facilities. Japan has invested huge sums in auto plants in the state of Mississippi (to put it bluntly, America's own Bangladesh). And I support this fully!