Last week, world leaders convened in Abuja, Nigeria for the World Economic Forum on Africa. Less than a month after Boko Haram militants bombed a lorry park, kidnapped and threatened to sell 230 to 276 girls, and two months after they slaughtered 29 to 59 boys in their boarding school, there is global concern for how Africa’s largest economy can optimize its growth potential when lack of safety—especially that of school-aged children—riddles the society.
While Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan assured, in a Sunday night press conference, that he was marshaling national and international resources to find the girls abducted from their dorms, “at least eight [more] girls between the ages of 12 and 15” were snatched from their villages according to a new CNN report.
In an EBONY.com exclusive, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama asserted the attacks on African children—and attendant global apathy—are among the biggest threats to Africa’s growth potential.
“From child soldiers to child brides,” he wrote, “African children have become prey for rebels, religious zealots, and human traffickers. That is because they know that Africa’s future is in the hands of our children. To steal our children is to steal our hope; to kill our children is to kill whatever possibilities of greatness they were destined to deliver.”
This point comes a day after GhanaWeb.com reported Mahama, who is the chair of the Economic Community of West African States, called on ECOWAS member nations “to help end the Boko Haram campaign of terror in Nigeria.”
Indeed, one of the continent’s harbingers of growth is its demography. 50% of Sub-Saharan Africans are between the ages of 15 and 24. This age group is growing at a rate of 3% per year, which means Africa will have an expanded labor force to generate income. But this surge of young people needs to be equipped with education and all the resources to grow into engaged citizens.
Appropriately, the two-day economic forum opened with the launch of the Safe Schools Initiative.
According to the 2014 edition of the Africa Progress Report, violence—as seen in Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, among others—is part of a number of issues that could undermine the continent’s trajectory. Authored by the Africa Progress Panel, which former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan chairs, the report recommends African and global leaders simultaneously shore up the farming and fishing sectors and end “illicit financial flows” to capitalize on the continent’s prospects.
“Africa Rising” has been the hopeful takeaway from news that the world’s fastest growing economies are African—Sierra Leone leads a pack that includes Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, and Nigeria—but the report cautions that unless the leaders of these growing nations ensure the majority of their citizens can participate in the projected advancement, they’ll miss the opportunity to benefit from this wave. (Writer Alexis Akwagyiram said as much in a piece for BBC Africa, last year.)
With Africa’s agriculture and fishing sectors, “[providing] livelihoods for roughly two-thirds of all Africans,” this means empowering farmers financially. They need access to credit, savings, and insurance to increase productivity, while protecting themselves against drought or other unforeseen natural occurrences. The report also calls for investment in road networks that make food delivery easy, and better management of existing land resources.
Citing food insecurity concerns across the globe, the report points out “only 3.5 million hectares of the 240 million hectares suitable for wetland rice cultivation [in Africa] have been exploited.” Meanwhile, African countries spend $35 billion every year importing food.
As a counter point, “Sub-Saharan Africa loses $50 billion every year to illicit financial flows.”
Tightening loose industry regulations on trade and foreign investments—and enforcing them—are critical to boosting Africa’s economies. According to the report, “illegal and unregulated fishing costs West Africa alone US$1.3 billion a year.”
In the media chat he held to address the kidnappings and other national concerns, Nigeria’s President Jonathan told assembled journalists the definition of “corruption” versus individual theft is too loose.
“The word ‘corruption’ is now being overused,” he explained. “Common thief, we say ‘corruption’. There are clear cases where somebody steals and instead of keeping that as an issue…they say ‘Corruption in Nigeria.’”
Specifically addressing allegations that $20-50 billion spirited away in an 18-month timeframe between some time 2010 and 2012, President Jonathan questioned whether such large sums could be stolen given the logistics of withdrawing certain amounts in most parts of the world.
“…if you are stealing $20 billion it must be through transfers and all kinds of networks. The Americans will say that they have spent half a million here; they have spent half a million there. They will know.” He added, “Up till now we are still recovering stolen money from this country that people kept in different places, so, the world is open.”
Saying he wished Nigeria’s federal reserves contained $100 billion, instead of the”38-40-something billion” that is in the coffers, Jonathan added, he would celebrate the return of the alleged missing $20 billion.
The report makes clear that African leaders don’t bear sole responsibility for recommended reforms.
“…action must be extended to the major international commodity traders, who play a critical role in African markets, from coffee through to oil. Too often these powerful and globally influential traders have been overlooked by national and international regulation.”
With all these eyes cast towards Africa’s promise and future, it’s easy to feel a sense of ancestral déjà vu. When industrialization drained resources in the Western Hemisphere—as the recession, sluggish recovery, and unemployment have compromised economic growth in Europe and America today—Africa’s resource wealth and labor force became attractive to, and ultimately coopted by, imperialist interests.
But we are not in the 16, 17, or 1800s—or the 1960s when many Sub-Saharan nations regained their independence from colonial powers. In 2014, the continent once again finds itself with all the raw materials and the population necessary to thrive. Whether Africa can enact a new ending to this familiar history is up to her people—and her leaders.