The Answer for Africa

Here's a novel idea for the leaders of the Group of Eight highly industrialized nations, scheduled to meet this week, June 26-27, in Alberta's breathtakingly beautiful Kananaskis country. If summit host, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and the other leaders really want to help Africa pull out of its economic death spiral, as they say they do, then perhaps the best thing they could do would be to decide to leave the continent alone. But if Somalia's recent history is any guide, they might benefit the continent even more if they simply dropped a team of paratroopers over each African capital and wiped out all the governments.

According to Andrew Cockburn in the July 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine, Somalia is rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the 1993 war (which inspired the movie Black Hawk Down) and becoming an economic powerhouse in western Africa precisely because anarchy has reigned ever since. Consider Cockburn's on-the-scene assessment of what has happened since the war. “Like plants sprouting after a forest fire, Somalis have managed to survive and build on their own, in some respects with more success than developing nations on the receiving end of international aid and advice.”

Significantly, the Somalis get it. They have learned through experience that less government is good, and that no government is better. Hear what telecommunications tycoon Abdirizak Ido told Mr. Cockburn: “We have been through some hard times, but the worst was when we had a government. Once there was no government, there was opportunity!”

Small entrepreneurs are doing well. Better yet, they also understand they are doing good. “In the northwestern city of Hargeysa, in the congested Sheikh Nur community for returned refugees, the Ismail family invested their meager resources in a water tap to supply the entire neighborhood. Abdi Ismail not only garners a weekly profit of $20 but also points out: u2018We are contributing to rebuilding Somaliland.'”

Needless to say, in a land where enterprise is truly free, the customer is king. Ten phone companies compete for business in the capital city of Mogadishu. Landline service is connected eight hours after it’s ordered. And it only costs $10 a month. North Americans should be so well off. Cell phone connections are instantaneous. Local calls are free and international calls are only 60 cents to a dollar a minute. Amazingly, long distance is available even in remote villages, due to shortwave radio hookups. Somalis proudly point out that their phone service is far superior to anything found in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.

All kinds of private enterprise is flourishing. Mogadishu now boasts a spaghetti factory, a plastics factory, a mineral-water plant, a bakery, and two fiercely competitive cable companies. And contra the protestors that have flocked to the G-8 summit to scream out their belief that economic fairness means the UN must be allowed to forcibly redistribute the world's wealth, Somalia's nouveau riche even give something back to the community. For instance, Abdirizak Osman, an entrepreneur in the desert town of Gaalkacyo who started with phones, then branched out to electrical generators, now provides street lights and free electricity to the local hospital.

Incidentally, the local Muslim fundamentalists can’t get a foothold, not since 1993, anyway. People have better things to do. And clan loyalties, now allowed to flourish, prevent the fundamentalists from controlling any significant power-base. Despite rumors and innuendos flowing from the US State Department, Somalia is no friend of al Qaeda terrorists either. When the US government reported that Osama Ben Laden might be heading for the Horn of Africa, Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah suggested he should stay away if he did not want to be cashed in for the $25-million reward.

Not all is well in Somalia. Poverty and starvation still abound. Warlords still vie for power, and meaningless, brutal death still strikes without warning. Moreover, Somalia has no exports to speak of; most of the cash that keeps the country going flows from the Somali diaspora, the million or so Somalis who live and work throughout the world and send cash back to their families and clans. But even here, entrepreneurs compete for the fees that cover the cost of shifting some $20 million a month into the country, which means transactions are done on trust and are usually completed within 24 hours. The system works because each transfer house knows that if a single penny is purloined, its business will immediately evaporate.

Few westerners realize how poorly Africa has fared in comparison to the rest of the world since colonialism ended in the 1960s. According to Columbia University economics professor Xavier Sala-I-Martin, in 1970, 11% of the world's poor were in Africa and 76% in Asia. By 1998, Africa supported 66% of the poor and Asia's share had shrunk to 15%. And although it may be harder to prove why Asia has done well, Africa's afflictions are fairly obvious. Free money from the West has always been a temptation to thieves and thugs. In Somalia, for example, the warlords arose in part in the battle for control of the foreign aid that once flowed into the country.

If G-8 host Chretien is allowed to define how aid is communicated, history suggests that Africa's difficulties are far from being over. In spite of his professed sympathy for suffering Africans, Mr. Chretien has never met an African dictator he didn't like. Moreover, although his plans have been necessarily vague, he gives every sign of being willing to pump millions more Canadian pesos and American dollars into those dictators' Swiss bank accounts. One can only hope that someday the African people will rise up and reject their overlords, foreign aid, and World Bank money in one fell swoop. It will be the beginning of the continent's renaissance.

At least Mr. Cockburn has seen the light. At his article's end he points out that some Somalis are thinking about asking the U.S. to impose a political solution on the still-warring warlords. “[But] recent history,” he asserts, “suggests that Somalis may fare better when left on their own.”

June 26, 2002

Shafer Parker [send him mail] is pastor of Zion Baptist Community Church, Edmonton, Alberta, and former senior editor of Report Newsmagazine.