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Opinions of Thursday, 16 August 2018

Columnist: Kwadwo Agyapong Antwi

Time to rethink the 'Rising Africa' narrative?

Donald J. Trump. Perhaps no other name on the planet provokes more repulsion and is associated with more controversy. And so, to many of his detractors, it may not have been surprised when he referred to Haiti, El Salvador and countries from Africa as “shithole” countries during a private meeting with some lawmakers in the White House.

First, given this statement was not uttered ‘publicly’, one can only wonder why anyone would leak it to the media; a situation which is only bound to create further hatred for the president and his administration, and by extension the US?

But wait a minute, there have been other public utterances made by the POTUS, which give the impression that the real estate mogul and TV personality, who is considered an outsider to the Washington political establishment, may not have so much respect for Africa after all. For example, in June 2017, he was reported to have said: “Nigerians would never go back to their huts”.

Their huts! As if Nigeria, one of Africa’s biggest economies, is still stuck in the 12th century! Also, during a conference organized for some African heads of state, Trump congratulated them for making his friends rich. This was clearly interpreted as undermining Africa’s capacity to manage our resources prudently, which creates lapses that enrich foreign business people. From the look on the faces of the heads of state present when Trump uttered this statement, it was obvious that this meaning was not lost on them.

It is worth recollecting that the Donald has not stepped foot on the African continent yet. Therefore, much of the information he has about the continent is likely gleaned from the lens of the western media. Which brings into question the age-old concern about the single-story narrative about Africa.

A narrative which creates a picture of doom and gloom, by focusing on the negatives. I remember an incident in Central Europe when a young man, having introduced myself as someone from Africa, shyly asked if there was war in Africa. So, I asked if there was war in Ukraine, to which he answered yes. I then asked if that meant there was war in Europe? Like Donald Trump, that young man’s vision about Africa was tainted by the images of war and famine he’d seen on TV. I could hardly blame him.

So, perhaps if Africa had a voice then the Donald would not have to visit before he has more respect for us? He wouldn’t have to tour Trassacco Valley in Ghana, with its plush mansions, or the Airport City with its high-rise buildings, or East Legon where he could grab some chicken wings from KFC or a pizza from Pizza Hut, and feel as if he was on the streets of Manhattan. And of course, he wouldn’t have to roam the clean streets of Kigali, take a Safari in Kenya or bask in the sun on the beaches of Ikeja Lagos. Perhaps if we had a voice; our own international media that would share Africa’s story with the rest of the world, then we could change the toxic narrative on media reportage about our beautiful continent, right? Wrong!

Lately, there’s been a push for a parallel narrative that Africa is “a continent on the rise”. This push, considering realities on the ground, reminds me of a Ghanaian proverb which says, “No one points to their father’s village with the left finger”.

People seem to have a natural inclination to paint fairer pictures about their countries, especially if they happen to live in a bubble of affluence which shields them from the harsh reality of life outside of their cocoons. It is very easy to be outraged by the negative press Africa receives when you’re gainfully employed (and likely enjoying additional wealth from corruption), enjoying clean water, drive in your own car on a tarred road to work, have three square meals a day and shop in the sprawling malls dotted around the few affluent neighborhoods. So, for a more objective analysis, let’s see what the available data reveal about the continent:

In 2012, some 501 million people, representing 47% of Africa’s population were living under the poverty line. Over a million Africans, many of them children, die from malaria every year. According to the FAO, one in 3 Africans was undernourished as at 2010. One in sixteen women dies during childbirth. In 2013, more than 12.5 million Africans were internally displaced, mainly due to conflict. An estimated 25% of Africa’s GDP is lost to corruption annually.

Does this reveal a continent on the rise, in stagnation or retrogressing? If Africa is the paradise we would like the rest of the world to think, why are millions of our citizens risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe? Why do our politicians seek healthcare in Europe? Why do the elite send their children to schools abroad? What’s the nature of our road network? What’s the life expectancy of our people? What’s the state of our schools and hospitals? What’s the nature of our sewerage and waste treatment systems? How are our cities and towns planned? What about our energy needs?

To describe Africa in terms of the little progress made, and whose benefits accrue to only a few elite citizens, would be to paint a picture based merely on myth and legend. Don’t get me wrong, Africa has made progress on many fronts, so to describe it as a shithole also, is to lose sight of all the progress we’ve made. That’s not right. That’s wrong, and whoever makes such a statement deserves unreserved condemnation, even if he’s the president of the United States.

However, it is important to be clear about the fact that many of our citizens are still living in medieval conditions, after decades of telling the world we can manage our own affairs. Methinks much of the challenge our continent faces are perpetuated by Africans ourselves, largely through corruption.

Just a few decades ago, the likes of Donald Trump may have had some personal justification to refer to China in such derogatory terms, but not anymore. Why? Because China harnessed its resources to create a decent life for its citizens and to assert itself as a superpower that cannot be ignored. The China story is a clear example of respect having to be earned instead of demanded. Whether Africa will continue being described in such terms largely depends on us. It might feel good to use the power social media puts in our hands to rebuke Trump all year long, but that doesn’t solve anything. Facta non verba; deeds not words, that’s what’s needed if we are to rise and be at the table of respected nations in the world.

In reaction to Trump’s suggestion that the US should welcome more immigrants from countries like Norway, Norwegians gleefully taunted their American counterparts on social media. According to them, no rational Norwegian would immigrate to the USA, because they had a better quality of life and social services. Hopefully, in a couple years’ time, we in Africa will also have the confidence to say, “Immigrate to the USA? No way!”. Hopefully. But first #Introspection.

The writer blogs on social, political and economic issues at www.thinkingwityou.wordpress.com