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Africa at 58: Is this what we want?

By Daniel Ominde

The continent celebrated 58 years since the formation of the Africa Union (formerly Organization of Africa Unity) towards the end of last month. The 2021 theme  is ‘Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers for building the Africa we Want.’

This year’s commemoration came in the wake of health, economic and political challenges across the continent. The Covid-19 pandemic, resultant economic pressure, re-emergence of military coups, state-aided corruption, illicit financial flows, the rise of armed conflict and Islamic insurgents in various parts of the continent. Could we say we are moving towards the Africa we want?

As we reflect on the declaration made in Addis Ababa in 1963, successive summits and the subsequent formation of the African union in 2002 to date, how do we keep track of past pledges we made as a continent even as we focus on new areas like the arts in delivering to us the African dream this year? Last year, the theme of the celebrations was “Silencing the guns” but we have only seen them getting louder.

The return of military coups

One accepted definition of a coup is “that of an illegal and overt attempt by the military (or other civilian officials) to unseat sitting leaders.” A study by two American researchers, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, cites over 200 such attempts in Africa since the late 1950s.

Burkina Faso has had the most coups in the continent; seven successful ones and one failed attempt. Since 2010 alone, Africa has had eight successful coups and at least 29 attempts.

In the week that we were celebrating Africa Day, Mali had its second coup in less than 10 months. In neighbouring Niger, a coup was thwarted in March just days before the presidential inauguration.

In April this year, after the death of the Chadian leader Idriss Deby, the army installed his son as interim president leading a transitional military council. His opponents called it a “dynastic coup”.

While in the case of Mali, the Africa Union has stepped in and expelled the country from the organization as well as instituting a raft of sanctions, similar actions have not been taken against the military regime in Chad. This has resulted in the continental body being accused of employing double standards.

In 2017, Zimbabwe witnessed a bloodless coup that saw the dethroning of one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers from power by the military; Robert Mugabe.

The emergence of Islamic insurgents

The last few years have also seen increased activities of militant groups linked to the Ismalic State and Al-Qaeda in parts of West Africa, the Sahel region and Northern Mozambique.

The Sahel, a vast region bordering the Sahara Desert and including the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is increasingly referred to by the U.S. military as “the new front in the war on terrorism”.

Only last weekend, armed men killed at least 160 people in an attack on a village in Northern Burkina Faso. This was the country’s worst attack in recent years, according to officials. Homes and the local market were burned during the raid on Solhan in the early hours of Saturday morning. No group has claimed responsibility, but Islamist attacks are increasingly common in the country, especially in border regions.

In January, just a few days after the first round of voting that would usher in the first-ever democratic transfer of power in Niger, militants attacked two villages in the northern part of the country killing at least 100 people. Officials said 70 people were killed in the village of Tchombangou and 30 others in Zaroumdareye – both near its border with Mali.

In Mozambique, a multibillion-dollar natural gas project was suspended in the province of Cabo Delgado in the northern part of the country following escalating attacks by an alleged Islamic State-linked group. Since October 2017, there has been increased insurgency from alleged Islamist Ansar al-Sunna rebels, resulting in the killing of more than 2,000 people. The UN reports that more than 700,000 others have been forced to flee their homes.

Political Instability

The armed conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region which began in December 2020 has led to thousands of civilian deaths and displacements and allegations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The second-most populous country on the continent also has a dispute with Sudan and Egypt concerning its Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam on the Nile River’s main tributary.

Egypt which claims the dam will deny it water for agricultural, industrial and domestic use has threatened military action against her southern neighbour.

Ethiopia is also expected to go into elections later this month after the exercise which was initially slated for last year was put off due to the pandemic. Whereas the current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is celebrated for introducing political reforms in the country which included releasing political prisoners and journalists from detention, his administration has continued with a heavy-handed crackdown on opposition politicians and opposition-leaning media establishments.

Somalia which has not had a stable government for decades has also been embroiled in instability following attempts by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to extend his term in office by two years.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Africa has recorded 132, 517 deaths resulting from Covid-19. Over 4.9 million people have tested positive for the novel virus that was first reported in the continent in early 2020. In a bid to roll back on the effects of the pandemic, African countries have collectively administered 31.8 million vaccines doses.

The continent has so far procured a supply of a paltry 53.5 million doses against a population of 1.3 billion.

While there are great concerns over a slow roll-out of vaccination programmes in places like the DRC owing to the spread of misinformation, poor infrastructure and militant activities in parts of the country, it is rather heartwarming to see countries like Tanzania change position when it comes to the pandemic and vaccine rollout.

Press freedoms

After a wave of liberalisation in the 1990s, press freedom violations are now only too common. They include arbitrary censorship, especially on the Internet (by means of ad hoc Internet cuts in some countries), arrests of journalists on the grounds of combatting cybercrime, fake news or terrorism, and acts of violence against media personnel that usually go completely unpunished.

Interestingly, Namibia, Cabo Verde, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Botswana and Senegal appear in the ‘top 50’ bit of the 2021 RSF World Free Press Index; most ranked higher than the US (except Senegal). A majority of the continent’s countries however appear after position 100, of the 180 countries ranked in the index, Eritrea takes the last place.

In conclusion, the commemoration of Africa day should provide us with an opportunity to reflect on where we are as a continent in achieving the union our founders dreamt of in 1963. The challenges faced by countries across Africa are as diverse as the region itself, but there is a need for collective effort in tackling some of these issues, especially eradicating armed conflict.

Even as we set new goals to achieving the Africa we want, it’s important to keep track of past targets so that we do not roll back on the gains made so far.

*This article first appeared on Blogging.Africa

African Thinker

A Pan-African magazine of ideas and commentary on issues shaping Africa’s future.

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