What Could Still Crush Africa's Dreams Of Prosperity

Demographically and economically, Africa is well poised for success. But it needs to find new forms of growth and governance – and an end to bloody conflict – to realize its potential.

In Lagos, Nigeria
In Lagos, Nigeria
Dominique Moïsi

PARIS – The final genocide of the 20th century, in Rwanda, during which over 800,000 people were killed, did nothing to end the extreme violence on the African continent. Twenty years later, in the young state of South Sudan and in the failed state of the Central African Republic (CAR), massacres have become a feature of daily life.

The French army has not succeeded in ending the deadly fights between Christian and Muslim militias in CAR. And hiding behind the “ethnic cleansing” expression is a more complex and diverse reality: tribal and religious conflicts, not to mention political rivalry.

But though people are slaughtering each other in Africa more than anywhere else on the planet, the continent has paradoxically become a place of hope. Today there is a real divorce between the perpetuation of extreme violence and the demographic, economic, and, to some extent, political and social evolution of Africa.

It’s fair to wonder whether a long four-century chapter is closing right before our eyes. Since the 17th century, Africa has been nothing but an object of world history. First, its population was treated like little more than raw material necessary to the economic growth of other continents. Then its territories were divided, often in the most random manner, by colonial powers who hid their appetite for riches and conquest behind nobler motivations. Again, in the 20th century, Africa offered first the blood of its men, then the solution of its territories to Europe, as the old continent was committing suicide with two world wars.

Demographically and economically, Africa is back

Now, as the 21st century begins, Africa is in the spotlight of history once more. Demographically, with more than 1 billion inhabitants and about 18% of the world’s population, Africa has regained the place it occupied at the beginning of the 16th century. Back then, the 100 million people living in Africa represented 20% of the world’s population. By the mid-19th century, after more than 200 years of slavery, only 95 million people (9% of the global population) remained on the continent, while the rest of the world was undergoing massive demographic growth.

As for the economy, sub-Saharan countries have all been enjoying growth of 5% to 6% on average for the last 10 years. And as all the BRICS countries — China excepted — see their economic growth slow down dramatically, it seems only natural to turn to the continent that possesses unique energetic and mineral resources both in quantity and quality.

And yet, this ray of hope is probably not enough to make Africa the equivalent of what Asia was 20 or 30 years ago. That’s because of both cultural and political reasons — if not psychological.

What happened in Asia was the historical continuity of great empires, China being the most spectacular example. In addition, there is a long history of rivalry between Asian powers, and this has been a decisive factor in the continent’s success and economic development. This healthy competition/emulation between Japan, China and South Korea — which Western Europe certainly lacked after World War II — has no equivalent in Africa. Nigeria is not the equivalent of China, and post-Mandela South Africa is a disappointment.

Africa must find in the gaze of the rest of the world a new self-confidence. Who knows today what its great empires and kingdoms were like? Who actually is aware that before the discovery of South American gold and silver in the 16th century, Africa was to the whole planet the continent of gold? Slavery, the worst possible wound, marked a break in African history. The numbers alone — between 10 and 15 million direct victims, the equivalent of AIDS mortality — are not sufficient to comprehend the destructive impact that this had on African confidence.

One may criticize China’s cynicism, but let us not forget that it is China more than any other country that, at the end of the 20th century, contributed to transform the image that Africa had of itself. But even though Asia, via China, put Africa back on the right track in terms of confidence, that does not mean the continent is becoming the “new Asia.”

Now, still in the early stages of the 21st century, it may be that world history is writing itself in Africa. This time, it is the Africans themselves who hold in their hands the future of their continent. In itself, Africa concentrates and symbolizes all the fears and hopes of humanity: global warming, desertification leading to migration, pandemic risks but also the hope that new forms of growth, and perhaps of governance, can be found.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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