As we learned back in the Soviet times, on 25 May, all progressive people celebrate Africa Day, also known as the African Freedom Day. It commemorates the Organization of African Unity being established by thirty African leaders on 25 May 1963 in Addis Ababa. On this day, a great variety of events are held around the world: exhibitions, culture forums, concerts, film festivals and academic conferences to remind everyone about the African continent, its indisputable achievements and—equally obvious—unresolved problems. Africa Day was celebrated a short while ago, providing an occasion to discuss this part of the world.
It would be true to say that each of us gets to know Africa in their own distinct way. To me, then a child, Africa first showed itself from the pages of an old, well-thumbed copy of Korney Chukovsky’s book.* Later, of course, I read Louis Boussenard and Jules Verne, Mayne Reid and Alphonse Daudet, Nikolay Gumilev and Ernest Hemingway… Yet, none of these wonderful writers could ever superimpose themselves over the deeply imprinted images of the good Dr. Dolittle and the villain Ben Ali. My off-and-on trips to Africa, ranging from Egypt in the north to South Africa at the other end of the continent, have not erased these images either. Faded pictures in a children’s book sometimes keep resurfacing in my memory.
Incidentally, for Chukovsky, who never got to visit Africa, the continent was absolutely desolate. Chukovsky’s Africa is populated exclusively by anthropomorphic representatives of local fauna: crocodiles and hippos, gorillas and rhinos, and other good or bad animals. As for humans, in addition to the protagonists, Chukovsky only mentions the little Vanya and Tanya, who secretly ran away to Africa when their parents carelessly fell asleep. Most likely, there are no other people in the book because the author needed to turn the spotlight on the confrontation between the altruistic liberal Dr. Dolittle and the cynical realist Ben Ali.
However, when Chukovsky was working on his book a hundred years ago, Africa was rather sparsely populated indeed. Various estimates put the population of Africa in the early 20th century at 93–110 million people, which is significantly less than, for instance, the population of the Russian Empire at that time. By the mid-20th century, Africa already had a population of half a billion and, by the end of the century, this figure had risen to 800 million. Today, Africa’s total population (1.365 billion) is nearly ten times that of Russia; Africa is catching up with such demographic giants as China and India and will soon overtake them both.
Today’s forecast of Africa’s in 2050 population is at least 2.4 billion, and 4.2 billion in 2100. In other words, by the end of this century, Africa’s once vast desolate expanses will be home to nearly 40 per cent of the global population. The population of Nigeria alone will have reached almost a billion by then, that is, one in ten on Earth will be Nigerian. The population of Russia at the turn of the 22nd century will be comparable to that of a single large Nigerian state (Nigeria has thirty-six states, not counting the capital, which is a special status federal territory).
Getting away from the current political situation for a second and leaving aside the current confrontation between the great powers, we easily arrive at the logical conclusion that it is Africa, not Russia or China or India for that matter, that constitutes the principal challenge to the current, mostly western, world order.
Yet this long-term challenge has nothing to do with geopolitics, which has once again become trendsetting.
Africa is seeing a most chaotic urbanization at its fastest rates. Before our very eyes, huge and poorly governed metropoles are emerging, each of them with a population of tens of millions. Urban problems of the future will be epitomized by the larger in size than cities on other continents, though infrastructurally lagging behind Lagos, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Luanda and Nairobi rather than New York or London, Shanghai or Karachi.
Africa is experiencing the fastest shrinkage of forests and expansion of deserts. The Sahara is advancing on the countries of the Sahel from the north, prompting waves of “environmental refugees” as well as exacerbating ethnic and denominational issues. The African Great Lakes in the east of the continent, including Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa, are becoming shallow, yet they contain about a quarter of all the Earth’s fresh water.
Climate change is hurting Africa more than any other continent and will do so more and more as time goes on. Rising heat has resulted in the agricultural season becoming 50–100 days shorter in some areas. Most countries of the continent, including the most populous ones, are already incapable of feeding themselves; national food shortages tend to increase, as do economic and social inequality and the attendant potential for civil and inter-country conflicts.
How is the collective West or, rather, the collective North responding to this challenge? The African stage still has its Dr. Dolittles and Ben Alis. The outstanding European theologian Albert Schweitzer, philosopher of culture, humanitarian, musician, and doctor, was a surprising embodiment of the classical image of Dr. Dolittle. He dedicated most of his life to treating Africans in a village hospital in Gabon. Yet, far more often, the role of Dr. Dolittle is today played by the manager of a big charity foundation, the employee of an international development institution, or the official of a government agency providing technical assistance to foreign states. Today, an entire industry has emerged to render aid to African education, healthcare, agriculture, and social development.
The image of Ben Ali has also changed significantly over the last hundred years. There are still some colorful international adventurers, indefatigable condottieri and soldiers of fortune, be it the almost legendary weapons seller Viktor But, who is currently serving a twenty-five-year term in an American prison, or nameless soldiers of private military companies, who are fighting in many conflicts around the world, including in Africa. As a rule, however, Ben Ali is now disguised as a far less imposing head of a big transnational company working in energy, mining or finance. They have come to Africa to do business: to produce oil and gas, mine non-ferrous metals, operate a logging company, supply food and extend loans to African governments.
The problem is that neither the Dr. Dolittles nor the Ben Alis of today are capable of even slowing down the exacerbation of the continent’s problems, much less resolving them. For instance, big charity funding for leading African universities often results in boosting the “export sector” in African education: graduates of the continent’s best universities endeavor to use their abilities and skills somewhere in Europe or America rather than at home. And transnational corporations, both Western and Chinese, have so far done little to assist in transforming Africa into the world’s new “industrial workshop.” Recently, the interest of present-day Ben Alis in Africa has generally shrunk: total foreign direct investment has been falling for at least seven years and the number of new projects launched in Africa with foreign participation has dropped by nearly two-thirds amid the pandemic.
If you don’t come to Africa, Africa will come to you.
The global North will be unable to fence itself off from the global South, and the rapidly growing but poorly developing Africa will inevitably make its presence felt through multiplying regional conflicts and rising international terrorism, an exacerbated situation on the global food market and an increasing contribution to the overall global warming.
Even so, it will make its presence felt mostly through the inevitable increase in transcontinental migration flows. The likely scale of Africa’s impending migration pressure on the rest of the world is hard to predict, but it is quite obvious that we are talking colossal numbers, far exceeding anything human history has ever known. The European migration crisis of 2015 will seem like a minor trouble when compared to what may lie ahead for the developed countries of the North in the not-so-distant future.
At the same time, a young Africa, with its ebullient new blood, is not only humanity’s main potential challenge but also its main potential opportunity. Unlike the aging Europe, unlike North and East Asia, which are losing their bloom, unlike the U.S., which is past the peak of its power, Africa is a continent with everything ahead of it. It has many of the potential growth sources for the global economy in the second half of the 21st century and for the more distant future. It is not just an exotic place for little Vanya and Tanya’s magical adventures, it is the place where the future of humanity will be largely determined.
With that in mind, Africa should become a global project that could unite East and West, Atlantic liberals and Eurasian autocrats. They would be united not by the fairy-tale altruism of Dr. Dolittle, nor by the grotesque cynicism of the pirate Ben Ali, but by taking a sober account of their long-term national interests. The African project should involve coordinated global re-distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars invested annually in large-scale projects in agriculture, renewable energy sources, urban development, middle and higher education, public healthcare and municipal governance.
Instead of being targeted showpieces based on blueprints provided by today’s charity foundations, specific programmes should be systemic and comprehensive; they should span the entire continent and be implemented over several decades. Neither the IBRD nor the IMF will be able to handle the African project, which means that radically new institutional solutions are needed. Of course, no one likes to part with their money but the future of humanity is worth the global North assuming the generally feasible burden of an additional tax.
Let us stress once again that the main, planet-wide challenge of our century lies not in Atlantic-Eurasian confrontation; it lies in U.S.–China rivalry and in the deep rift between the North and the South. The African continent remains the indisputable center of the global South. Humanity will not be able to successfully move forward in the next hundred years without responding properly to the African challenge thought this century.
* The author is referring to a popular book by Korney Chukovsky, which is a Russian adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr. Dolittle; the Russian version features Dr. Aybolit (Ouch-It-Hurts) and the villain Barmaley, who roughly correspond to Dr. Dolittle and the pirate Ben Ali, but the book differs significantly from its source.
From our partner RIAC