Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hope in Africa




When you live in a place, you tend to think of it locally. When you live outside it, the tendency is to think of it globally.


Not surprisingly, uniform pictures of Africa are usually painted from the outside. The latest example of this are Western reports that sub-Sahara Africa is both an east-west belt of warfare - from Namibia to Congo to Eritrea - and that it's also being consumed by AIDS. Whether they are depressing or whether they celebrate, whether they belong to the gloomy genre of writing called Afro-pessimism or to the bravado that goes by the name Afro-optimism, each is a view from a distance that glosses over local differences. Because life is lived locally, enough illustrations can be found for every far-fetched generalization. So long as this remains the case, neither the Afro-pessimist nor the Afro-optimist view can be discredited as entirely false, or acclaimed as entirely true. Each presents a one-dimensional reality.


That these are outside views does not mean that there are no global truths about Africa. There are. Here, for example, is a dismal one: Of all major regions of the world, none is as externally resource-dependent with as little influence on global developments as is sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, few places in the world are as blessed with natural resources as is Africa. This statement has been true for at least the past five centuries, starting with the Atlantic slave trade through the colonial era and the Cold War.


If you identify the continent's resource-rich countries - Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola - you will also identify its conflict-ridden parts. Each resource - whether oil or a mineral - is like an enclave from which the government derives most of its revenue and foreign capital most of its profits, but from which only a small part of the population derives its income.


A government that does not derive its revenue from taxing the bulk of the population is also a government that has little interest in the bulk of the population. Not surprisingly, these are countries that abound in opposites: The most modern methods of extraction in resource-rich enclaves combine with the most medieval conditions of living in the bulk of the country.


During the Cold War, these areas were the focal point of superpower rivalry and patronage. It was, after all, the resource enclaves of Congo and Angola, and strategically situated regions such as the horn of Africa, that invited bitter conflict between the superpowers. With the end of the Cold War, their importance lessened. In many instances, the regimes in power were orphaned: The enclaves of wealth and power became the subject of local conflicts, in some cases even encroached upon by the excluded majority.


In other cases, as with the United States in relation to Uganda and Rwanda, the Cold War habit of a big power choosing between local bullies lingers on. One truth about the Congo war is that it represents a consequence of the thaw that followed the end of the Cold War.


But there is also a second truth about the Congo. The Congo war also followed the genocide in Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide hit the central African region with the force of molten lava after a volcanic eruption. Like the Holocaust at the start of the Cold War, and the implosion of Yugoslavia at its end, the genocide in Rwanda puts in question the very possibility of human community. In that sense, it is a responsibility as global as an environmental concern or a health calamity like AIDS.


The year the genocide imploded in Rwanda, 1994, was also the year of majority-rule elections in South Africa. While facilitated by the end of the Cold War, and of big power patronage for both the African National Congress and the apartheid regime, the South African transition was different not only because it was a source of hope; it was also very much a local solution to a dilemma of global significance.


Today, the Congo war and the post-apartheid transition represent two contradictory tendencies, each an African development in the context that has followed the Cold War. For those with an appetite for global truths, it is best to keep both these in mind when thinking of Africa, rather than being satisfied with a one-eyed glimpse.


For those with a taste for ambiguity, it will help to keep in mind that global truths are about the environment under which people live. Whether this environment is constraining or enabling, it tells you almost nothing about how people live under it. It tells you even less about the initiatives that people take, today's ripples that may tomorrow take on the force of a current. To get that sense requires an appetite for the small truth.


The small truth is the real source of hope for Africa. It lies in the multiple - and even contradictory - initiatives that people take as they try to change their lives in the face of forces that may appear larger than life from a distance. This is why, if you live in a place, you have to be blind to miss signs of hope and change.


Mahmood Mamdani is a professor of government and director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University. He contributed this comment to Newsday.