Sub-Saharan Africa Today: An Overview

This article is a compilation of observations by the author; by distinguished African scholar Professor Ali Mazrui; by Rwanda's Ambassador to the United States, Theogene Rudasingwa (in a symposium on "Africa, Pan-Africanism, and the New World Order" held at the University of Georgia in January 1997); and by Dr. Callisto Madavo, World Bank Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa (in conversations during his visit to the University of Georgia in April 1997.)

Diane L. Brook

As the twentieth century draws to a close, Africa and Africans face issues of both internal and global import. The region of Sub-Saharan Africa has figured prominently in world news throughout this decade. The world watches as struggles for democracy unfold, cycles of violence continue, environmental and developmental issues confront governments, and peoples of the region strive for a better life. This decade has also been particularly significant in terms of American involvement. It behooves social studies teachers, then, to look anew at Sub-Saharan Africa as a key topic in social studies courses.
Consider the many historical links between Sub-Saharan Africa and the United States. In Liberia, South Africa, and many other countries, struggles for equality and freedom have been inspired by American democratic ideals. Many of the new democracies have constitutions developed on the American model. The United States plays an important role in providing both foreign aid, and resources for international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, to assist development. Teaching about Sub-Saharan Africa is a must in the interests of developing higher global awareness and intercultural understanding, and debunking the many stereotypes and misconceptions that abound.

A necessary first step is to consider the issue of continent versus region: why is Sub-Saharan Africa so often considered separately from Saharan North Africa, whose predominantly Arab countries-with a few exceptions-usually fall into the Middle East region? Here is an interesting example of the subjectivity of regional delineation, for certainly, the continent as a whole is an equally viable unit. In this issue, we consider Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of its historical development and contemporary issues-not in order to emphasize its differences from North Africa-but in order to concentrate on Sub-Saharan Africa as a coherent region comprised of its own sub-regions.

Ali Mazrui has noted parallel trends of internal democratization and global marginalization in today's Africa: as its people emerge into the light of nationhood, Africa the continent moves into the global shadow. While African peoples struggle to exert greater control over their governments through popular participation and other forms of citizen empowerment, African states are becoming enfeebled or, at least, less influential on the global scene. Mazrui's observations of the continent as a whole-and of Sub-Saharan Africa in particular-reflect his concern that attempts at progress too often mean one step forward and two steps back.

On the other hand, Dr. Callisto Madavo, World Bank Vice-President for Sub-Saharan Africa, and Theogene Rudasingwa, Rwanda's Ambassador to the United States, have suggested that the region's many success stories are cause for optimism about where the region stands and its ability to use opportunities at hand for solving major problems.

From this writer's perspective, while there are many positive developments to focus on in studying the region, there are also many concerns that demand critical examination. But even Mazrui's emphasis on parallel trends-positive and negative developments occurring simultaneously-should serve to dismiss the notion of Sub-Saharan Africa as the global community's "basket case." Any of the following issues could provide a focus for the study of Sub-Saharan Africa in social studies classrooms.

The Emergence of New Democracies
Since 1990, more than 20 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa have taken steps toward democratization by installing governments with multiple-party representation and popular participation. From Tanzania to Liberia to South Africa, the freedom to organize politically has grown, resulting in pluralistic challenges to one-party statism or dictatorship. In many cases, this has resulted in the removal of a long-standing head of state, such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia (1991) and, more recently, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire-now the Democratic Republic of Congo (1997).
Figures once thought of as "founding fathers" of post-colonial states have been removed after years of new bondage and corruption-empowering the people but also risking internal turmoil. Some African leaders have retired voluntarily, such as Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, often called the "father of African socialism."

Elsewhere, military leaders have been deposed or replaced by civilian leaders, although sometimes with uncertain results. In Liberia, hopes for democracy rest on a fragile accord, while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it remains to be seen whether the newly-installed leader, Laurent Kabila, will turn out to be a military strongman or a democratic leader.

Wars of democracy have been fought in many countries-also with varying effects. In Uganda, the defeat of military control was followed by recovery and development, while in Somalia the removal from power of Siaad Barre was followed by a return to centuries-old clan conflict. Wars have also been avoided. After decades of apartheid countered by mass resistance, many expected a bloodbath in South Africa in 1994, but the elections and transition to a multiracial government went ahead relatively peacefully. Reconciliation is the watchword there, as it is in Liberia, and in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, where some look to regional cooperation to bring an end to violence and instability.

Resort to war in the name of democracy is risky business, not only internally but internationally. The American involvement in Somalia, where a military presence failed to result in a peaceful outcome, demonstrates this. The role of peacekeeper is now one played cautiously by the United States, while the potential of South Africa to act as a mediator of regional conflicts was recently tested in the negotiations between opposing sides in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Federations to Solve Regional Problems
The concept of federation is emerging as one possible way out of the seemingly
intractable problems of ethnic conflict, political power struggles, and the patterns of violence-starvation-refugees that ensue. In Ethiopia, the prospect of an ethno-federation is under debate. Could such a grassroots democratization movement solve this nation's ancient conflicts, as argued by proponents? Alternatively, would it lead to aggravated factionalism and disintegration, as charged by critics?
Ambassador Rudasingwa of Rwanda has suggested that some form of federation involving his country and the neighboring states of Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and possibly the Democratic Republic of Congo, may be a solution to the turmoil in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. This would involve redrawing artificial colonial boundaries to enable the linking of ethnic groups. However, the goal of federation would not be merely to create a new array of small states, but to lead the region forward toward peace and prosperity.

In Southern Africa, such an entity already exists in the form of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), whose member states are joined in the pursuit of social, political, economic, and environmental interests. Its predecessor, the apartheid-era Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), was formed with the specific purpose of protecting its members from the economic and military hegemony of South Africa. However. a recent turnaround in SADC favors cooperation with the reformed state of South Africa. This and other regional entities are somewhat like NAFTA in terms of the benefits and constraints they confer upon member countries.

The creation of a Pan-African army is another option being considered by many African leaders. Would it be feasible to have such a force-led perhaps by South Africa or the United Nations (and U.S.- dominated)-that could intervene to maintain stability in a crisis? Nigeria leads a loose federation of West African states committed to peacekeeping and the oversight of democratic progress, both in war-torn Liberia and in Sierra Leone, where political turmoil erupted again in 1997.

Another possible basis for federation involves environmental issues, which are frequently regional, and no less so in Sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere. The Southern African states of Botswana and Namibia are currently locked in an environmental embrace-or battle-over water rights in the Okavango Basin. Ultimately, solving the water supply problems so acute in these dry countries must involve Angola, in whose highlands the major rivers rise. Similarly, the countries of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa are enmeshed in regional water supply and power generation issues, since the major rivers in this part of Africa rise in Zimbabwe and South Africa and drain to the southeast. Development in Southern Africa has always been shaped by transport and river networks, and these flows increasingly demand regional cooperation.

Models for Success
Sub-Saharan Africa's success stories are insufficiently celebrated, according to World Bank Vice-President Callisto Madavo, who argues for greater recognition of what is working in order to model other programs for sustainable development. What are some examples?
The overall quality of life for millions of Sub-Saharan Africans has improved in recent decades as the result of programs funded within countries and with international assistance. More children are going to school, drinking clean water, and getting better nutrition than ever before. In most cases, post-colonial development has focused on education, housing, and other dimensions of what governments call "human resources development," meaning programs designed to improve the quality of life. Of course, it is the disaster stories that are more often reported.

Recovery from disaster has been faster than anticipated in some countries and may be viewed as another kind of success story. For instance, in Ghana and Uganda-each left almost in ruins by internal violence-great strides have been made in rebuilding the economic infrastructure. Mozambique is another case in point; devastated by years of civil war, the country is now in the process of rebuilding through democratization, debt consolidation, and economic development. Teachers can help correct stereotypes and impressions about Sub-Saharan Africa by helping students learn more about the progress being made throughout the region.

Tanzania is not a wealthy country, yet it has led the continent-and impressed the world-with its efforts to preserve Africa's extraordinary wildlife. Its government has set aside more land area than any other African state for national parks and preserves, such as Serengeti and Ngorongoro. Incidentally, Tanzania's parks are modeled on the American national park system. Despite land pressures and the other horrific problems afflicting their populations, Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are working together to preserve the Virunga volcanoes habitat-the last stronghold of the endangered mountain gorilla-located where these states join in the Parc des Volcans. However, war and poaching remain serious threats to these animals.

The banding together of countries to solve regional problems may represent a success story, although in some cases, it is too early to tell. Widespread support for such federations, and respect for intra-continental stategies to solve African problems, is a reflection of international approval.

Problems and Concerns
Many Africans are cautious about the future in this decade of transition where change so often means risk. Peace and democracy are elusive goals, and tenuous holds on peace in the form of ceasefires or accords are easily broken. Several of Sub-Saharan Africa's most charismatic leaders have fallen, or have been exposed as corrupt and no better than the colonial overlords they replaced. The leadership of Nelson Mandela in South Africa generates a different kind of fear: what will happen after his time is past? Ali Mazrui has noted that one element of Africa's marginalization on the global scene lies in the absence of a set of new charismatic leaders to replace the outgoing ones-of whom Mandela is the last. However, new figures may emerge to assume significant stature-for example, Thabo Mbeki, who is widely expected to be Mandela's successor, or Liberia's Ruth Perry, who scored a first on the continent as a female head of state.
A pressing concern throughout the region involves the rights and welfare of women and children. Women have been and remain the economic mainstay of many countries. One result of the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda is that women there now far outnumber men, dominating the population profile yet possessing little economic, political, or personal power. The conflict of values between indigenous and Westernized cultures often ends in keeping women and children in disadvantaged positions. On the other hand, great strides in access to education for girls and in women's health care (including birth control and prenatal care) are taking place in many countries. Some women's issues involve indigenous traditions and cultural practices that are sources of conflict within a country, and may be clearly unacceptable to outsiders. One example is the common practice of female circumcision in many Sub-Saharan African cultures.

Refugees are a massive problem throughout Sub-Saharan Africa as the result of decades of violence, political struggle, and starvation. The alternative solutions-repatriation of refugees or their absorption into the host country-are both difficult and costly. The extent of the refugee problem is hard to document. For example, it is estimated that within South Africa today are as many as 8 million illegal residents, most from neighboring states; this includes illegal immigrants, migrant workers whose permits have expired, and refugees seeking asylum. But there are also large numbers of displaced persons from the desolate former "homelands." Situations like this pose problems both within nations and on a regional scale.

Another concern is that African interests in the global order are being marginalized. An example often cited is that, among the twenty most recent entries to the United Nations, only Namibia and Eritrea are African states. Some fear this means the influence of the continent is being further diluted. The fall of the Warsaw Pact has meant the loss of former Communist allies as the global community has been reconfigured and socialism has become unfashionable. The Sub-Saharan experiment in African Socialism (exemplified by countries such as Tanzania and Zambia and by South Africa's Communist Party) was founded on modified principles of European-style socialism. With the collapse of this ideology as a global force, its adherents have been left at a loss for an effective political platform.

Competition for financial support and development aid from donors (nations, the United Nations, and other non-governmental organizations) is increasing. This is a result of the cutback in foreign aid that has accompanied the end of the Cold War, as well as increasing demands for donor assistance in Asian and East European countries. This situation, too, can be viewed as the marginalization of Sub-Saharan African interests or opportunities. However, the growing strength of democracy in the region brings with it enhanced possibilities for aid tied to democratic governance and respect for human rights, strictures often put on aid by the United States.

Does the growing power of South Africa-its international credibility reestablished by its recent steps toward democracy-threaten to marginalize other Sub-Saharan nations? South Africa's economic and military might are unsurpassed on the continent. Moreover, its cultural prominence is reflected in the fact that five out of the seven Nobel Laureates from Africa have been South Africans. Do these things spell a new form of hegemony?

Finally, the Sub-Saharan region is often viewed as a puzzle: are so many countries in a low state of development (see the list of developing countries in "A Decade to Eradicate Poverty," Social Education, October 1997) because of their history of political and ethnic struggle; or is the low state of development the cause of many of these struggles? This chicken-egg issue figures prominently in debates about the conflicts in Central and East Africa, and it is not given to simplistic explanations or solutions. Teachers and students may find it useful to reflect on Mazrui's concept of parallel trends in modern Sub-Saharan Africa.

This overview has raised many issues-some as causes for celebration and others as problems to be solved-about the region of Sub-Saharan Africa today. Co-existing with the many signs of progress are dilemmas with long histories and cyclic patterns of repetition or resurgence. Regionalism emerges as a common thread, both in the manifestation of concerns and in the search for possible solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Looking beyond national identity and national borders is part and parcel of the worldwide phenomenon of globalization, in which nations and regional configurations are evolving into larger supranational units than ever before.
No longer is there a rigid division between west and east in Europe. In Africa, while the blurring of old regional divisions is less marked, the sub-regions of Africa south of the Sahara are being reconfigured into new alliances. Developing a larger African identity is also becoming a goal for the nations of the region. What benefits might this confer and what obstacles stand in the way? Teachers might begin this discussion by asking students to ponder its American analog: will we ever consider ourselves as "North Americans," sharing a supranational identity with our neighbors on this continent, rather than as Americans?

Diane L. Brook is a professor at the University of Georgia, Athens, in the College of Education (Departments of Social Science Education and Comparative and International Education). She is also a member of the University's African Studies Faculty.