THE MEDIA portrait of sub-Saharan Africa often evokes the image of the biblical barren fig tree. The continent is endowed with abundant natural and human resources. She has received numerous generous supports from the international communities in forms of loans, aids, and expertise. Yet the continent has miserably failed to utilize these and other past opportunities to develop and prosper. She boasts of a litany of woes; more than half of the world's illiterates, refugees, and AIDS victims live in the continent where malaria remains the greatest killer. The vast population lacks basic health care facilities, pipe-borne water, electricity, and modern means of transportation.
“In almost all our nations,” the African bishops at the April 10-May 6, 1994 Synod on Africa admitted, “there is abject poverty, tragic mismanagement of available scarce resources, political instability, and social disorientation. The results stare us in the face: misery, wars, despair. In a world controlled by rich and powerful nations, Africa has practically become an irrelevant appendix, often forgotten and neglected.” In light of these facts, the continent appears to have no future. In fact, “Africa is dying” The New Republic declared recently.
This conclusion seems indisputable when Africa is seen and presented as a tiny piece of land on the globe, with only a handful of inhabitants. Certainly, no small group of people can sustain such a considerable amount of tragedy? But with 54 countries in an area that is more than four times the size of the continental United States, Africa is a huge continent of tremendous diversity—it defies the media generalizations. And historical precedents suggest that continental crises do not spell demise.
The European continent, for example, has experienced predicaments similar to Africa'. Her present national political entities went through tortuous journeys before achieving modern statehood. During these periods, which modern historians designate as “Ages” and/or “Revolutions”—Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, Absolutism, Enlightenment, Industrial, etc.—Europe was plagued with political, social, economic, and medical turmoil comparable in scale to that experienced by contemporary Africa. Similar patterns are discernible during the emergence of many modern states in the Asian and American continents. None of the countries became a peaceful, stable, prosperous, and fully democratic society within the first four decades of its foundation.
Contemporary African countries are no different. Currently they are scarcely nation states. As national political entities the majority of them are still in their teething stage. But this does not in any way justify the avoidable human disasters that are taking place in the continent, for Africa has models and tested ideas to follow. The fact, however, remains that for the emerging nation states the formation of national unity will continue to be an arduous process because of the extraordinary diversity of their constituencies—in ethnicity, language, traditions, cultures, and histories. Pope John Paul II articulated this point in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation to the Church in Africa: “To reconcile profound differences, overcome long-standing ethnic animosities, and become integrated into international life demands a high degree of competence in the art of governing.”
The first generation of African leaders, i.e., the immediate successors to the colonial administrators, lacked this experience of state-craft. Some still do. But overall the present successors are unquestionably a significant improvement compared to the despotic, apartheid regimes that previously littered the continent. This is obvious in Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Coté d'Ivoire, Ghana, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), Namibia, and South Africa, to name but a few.
Other recent developments point to a continent undergoing construction more than destruction. The recent “miraculous” transitions from apartheid to democratic societies in both Namibia and South Africa have seemingly added momentum to the quest for democracy on the continent. There have been, within the past seven years, fair and free elections in 25 countries of the continent. Although far from being flawless— and though they have not made their countries truly democratic—the elections are indicative of the new dispensation that has set in on the continent. They are beacons of light and hope, not of darkness and death.
Surely, military dictators still abound, but they are ruling on borrowed time. A steady supportive call for change and a campaign for the recognition and respect of human rights by both the local and international communities will help to facilitate and consolidate an authentic and viable democratic tradition on the continent. But it will be an “inculturated democracy”—a system adapted to the African context—and not necessarily a clone of the West.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU), the continent's political body, appears to have begun to come to terms with the emerging new dispensation. It lately dawned on the members of the body that to have a stable, peaceful, and prosperous continent, Africans must be their brother's keepers. Thus, member states have begun to depart from the Organization's established principle and tradition not to “interfere in the internal affairs” of other members. This policy made silent spectators of the whole African continent while buffoon-harlequin tyrants and kleptocrats, like Obote, Idi Amin, Jean Bedel Bokassa, Macias Ngema, Siad Barre, Mengistu Haile Mariam, and Mobuto Sese Seko, to name but a few, oppressed their people and squandered their resources.
Recently, however, the OAU, through its West African member states, has restored a high degree of order and sanity in Liberia, and is unanimous in not recognizing the military junta in Sierra Leone. By endorsing the Nigerian government-led effort (through ECOMOG—the acronym for the intervention force) dedicated to restoring democracy in that country, the OAU closes a sad chapter in the continent's political history.
Beyond the trendy negative political and economic issues that make the headlines, one finds on the vast African continent more ethnic groups or tribes in harmony than at war with one another. In these communities, which often face overwhelming adversities, one finds resilient, improvising, and joyous spirits that disperse the clouds of despair. For these communities, a profound sense of the sacred, an acute sense of solidarity and community life—with the family at the center—a deep appreciation of human life as a gift received and to be cherished and respected in its various stages, are all beliefs fundamental to human survival.
It is these traditional African values, inter alia, that best explain the remarkable growth Christianity is experiencing today in the continent. This phenomenon is not lost on the present Pope who enthusiastically encouraged the process during his 11 trips to more than 35 African nations. It is not an exaggeration to argue that John Paul II sees the future of Catholicism as coming from the African continent. He is not the first one to think this. The German Capuchin missionary priest, Wëlbert Bulhmann, in his seminal work, The Coming of the Third Church, had already asserted this.
Priestly and religious vocations are blooming on the continent. In Africa, religious orders and congregations that are dying out in “Christian and civilized” Europe and America are thriving. New congregations and societies springing up to replace dying communities. This phenomenon has turned Africans into missionaries to themselves, and to some others as well. The Pope said in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation to the Church in the continent: “The missionary Institutes founded in Africa have grown in number, and have begun to supply missionaries not only to the countries of the continent but other areas of the world. Aslowly increasing number of African diocesan priests are beginning to make themselves available, for limited periods, as fidei donum priests in other needy dioceses in their countries and abroad.”
Considering the historical precedents of other nations and continents, as well as Africa's burgeoning political and socio-economic renewal, and her strengths and growth in other spheres of life, it is difficult to conclude that Africa is a dying continent. One cannot ignore or deny the considerable problems of the continent, but it is a greater disservice to deny the positive transformation and growth that is taking place. The anguished face of the African continent we see today is one engendered by birth-pangs—not death throes.
Nigerian Father OkeChukwu-Nwosuh, a member of the Missionary Society of St. Paul of Nigeria, is a graduate student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.