Faces of Africa

Back in May, prior to the Black Lives Matter marches, I felt that I needed to know more about politics in Africa, a part of the world I have not yet been to. Ironically, May is “Africa month,” a time to commemorate the continent. I came across a series on YouTube by CGTN (a Chinese network) called “Faces of Africa” where they profile the major leaders of Africa, most of whom helped liberate their countries from colonial powers. Each episode was unique and each leader a distinct personality. There were some whose names I knew very well, like Robert Mugabe, but others with whom I was less familiar. Some are still revered, whereas others are reviled.

Europeans might already be aware of the deep roots of colonialism in the African continent. For many of them, the presence of people from Africa and current-date immigrants is a reminder of their history. Indians have also had a presence in Africa for centuries, and Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa. More recently, there are East and Southeast Asians, and an Indonesian South African recently told me that the recent Asian immigrants have a better social status than earlier ones, as they had come from business and often brought great wealth. There are indeed a number of whites who are African whites, as their families have lived there for centuries. This is not just in the country of South Africa, but elsewhere, especially in former colonial strongholds.

It is important to know that there is extreme class stratification throughout the African continent. Africa is full of natural resources and so there are very wealthy people who have profited from these commodities. There are also booming metropolises, such as Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg (“Joburg” to the locals), and more that are centers of trade, finance, manufacturing. There is also extreme political instability throughout the continent, extreme corruption, and a lack of infrastructure. This is understandable, for the landmass is enormous, and encompasses all types of geography, from deserts to plains to snow-capped mountains to jungles. There is tremendous diversity in the religions and languages, with the North and Maghreb being predominantly Muslim, and over 1500 languages spoken in six different language families.

Yet despite this diversity, the continent has suffered through so many similar situations. The legacies and tragedies of colonial powers were affecting Africa through the mid 20th century. Exploitation–both financial and human–was rampant all over. The profiles of the leaders shown in “Faces of Africa” often reflect a very similar pattern: a colonial power had long had a hold over the country, and then a courageous idealist rose up to rebel against the colonials, garnering popular support along the way, and then became the leader of the country. However, over time, this leader either ended up facing opposition and was somehow ousted, or this leader ended up becoming a dictator just as bad as the colonial rulers. Many of them were educated in the West, and just like Gandhi, ended up using this knowledge of history and politics and the law to turn out the Western powers. The degree to which each of these leaders chose to remain connected to the west, or to be pro-Africa, has varied. Their styles of governing also differed greatly. Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie was an internationalist and Emperor, grand in his portraits and lifestyle. Joseph Sankara, “Africa’s Che Guevara” from Burkina Faso was a left-wing revolutionary who opposed the IMF and lived very frugally to the end. Robert Mugabe, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe who identified first with Marx and Lenin and then as a socialist, was a schoolteacher who rose to power to become one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, complete with a second wife who was known for her profligate spending.

These liberators are complex people who share many similarities but also have many differences. They raise greater questions: can one truly remain an idealist once they are in power? Will political coalitions and unity fragment once the common enemy of the colonizer is gone? Can a country that is part of the developing world subsist without aid from the developed world/IMF/World Bank? Can isolationism really help develop a country or will it hinder it? These are questions that have no easy answers and that have not yet been answered, issues that political scientists, historians, politicians, and those working in government confront even as we speak. One of the most pressing issues right now is debt forgiveness for Africa, and the Chinese have been involved as of late.

The African continent is rich in history and politics. While it is impossible to know everything about such a large area of the world, it’s important to inform oneself as best as when can. Even simply learning the geography and basic facts about the various countries is a good start.