Monday, July 1, 2013

Dear President Obama: A New Africa is Beckoning

A New Africa is Beckoning

By January Makamba - 28 June 2013

Dear President Obama,

Welcome back to Africa – where all humanity began.
You are visiting the continent at its most exciting time. We are in the middle of a transition from the old Africa that most Americans know todate to the new Africa that Africans all along believed it was possible.  The narrative of a Hopeless Continent – a supplicant people in need of saving - has given way to that of a Rising Africa.  GDP has doubled over the past 10 years. Africa’s GDP per capita has crossed the $1,000 threshold for the first time in history. More children are in school than at any time in history. Dictatorships are dwindling. Infant and child mortality rates have been cut by half. The continent has more mobile phones than Europe and North America combined.
 As you arrive here, you will see a lot of things – colours, bright sun, wide smiles and a certain new dynamism. But, as you think about America’s partnership with Africa, please consider how the following trends should shape the partnership between Africa and America:
One, there are many of us: about one billion - a little fewer than the Chinese and Indians. By 2050 there will be 2.2 billion of us, surpassing China and India by far. Also, of the one billion Africans today, seven hundred million are under 30 years old. The median age here is 18.5 years. This scale of growth – about 2.2 percent per annum compared to global average of 1 percent – will have implications on almost everything, and not only in here but also in your own country where the politics of global population control is intense.  

 Some see this demographic reality as scary. We see it as an opportunity – so long as we make smart investments in our people. And there is no smarter investment than education.  As you think about partnership with Africa, a partnership with lasting legacy, think education – skills and competencies to contend with the challenges and requirements of the new millennium.  You have done it before.
 Second, the association of Africa with a village is gone. Africa is leading the world in the creation of a new Urban Millennium. Within our lifetime, Africa will have more people living in urban areas (1.24 billion) than its entire population today (1 billion). Dar es Salaam, where you will visit, will double its population in the next 15 years whereas the Gulf of Guinea will become home to three hundred cities, each with over 100,000 people. Why is this important? Urban Africa provides the fulcrum of Africa’s growth. The 40 percent of Africans living in urban Africa produce 80 percent of its GDP. Cities provide hotbeds for political and social progress or instability. As you think about partnership for Africa’s growth, think cities. The United States is best poised for partnership with Africa in urban creation, planning, and renewal and investments in urban systems – transport, housing, energy and sanitation.   
 Third, you will be photographed more by cellphone cameras than actual photo cameras. This would not have been the case just a decade ago. In 1994, 70 percent of Africans had never heard a telephone ring but, today, of one billion Africans, there are 700 million mobile phone subscribers. This has enhanced financial inclusion, facilitated service delivery and helped lower the cost of doing business. While the mobile revolution has been truly inclusive, broadband access has not. As you push for expansion of broadband for Americans, partnership with Africa in this area will see Africa leapfrog into a new digital age. For every 10 percent increase in broadband penetration, the economy grows by 1 percent, and doubling of internet speed yields an additional 0.3 percent GDP growth. 
 Fourth, as you drive around, you may notice a lot of Chinese people and signage in our streets. Yes, they are here – in big numbers. In the last 10 years, for better or for worse, over one million Chinese moved to Africa – to settle and do business. Why? Because first, they ignored how Africa is covered in the Western media and secondly they saw something that Americans were late in seeing:  Africa is not just a destination for volunteer work and suntanning. It is also a place where returns on investments are almost guaranteed. We are delighted that you will be bringing along with you planeloads of American business people. American businesses can lead the way in showing that foreign investments is not a zero-sum game and that it is possible for businesses to succeed in Africa without paying bribes.
Fifth, you will hear a lot about natural resources and Africans’ quest to benefit more from them. You will hear murmurs that Americans and the Chinese are competing in Africa over Africa’s natural resources. These suspicions may be unfounded but they are a result of history. Not long ago, when America was already free and a democracy, there was an open scramble – among foreign powers – for Africa’s resources; there was King Leopold in the Congo; African countries were business companies owned by dukes in Europe. Some in the continent see this exploitation continuing in different forms – a notion facilitated by the fact that very few Africans have seen the benefits of extraction of natural resources in their countries. Partnership with America should be grounded in building the capacity of Africans to harness their own natural resources responsibly and for the benefit of their own people.   
Finally, over the past 10 years we have seen some good initiatives by American Presidents related to Africa: President Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and President Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), to name a few. We are delighted that you have decided to continue some of these. But we are also happy that you have decided to take on some critical issues for Africa’s progress: transparency, through Open Government Partnership (OGP); energy through Power Africa; and agriculture through Feed the Future. The beauty about these new programs is that they can be executed without significant new money from the US government. OGP is about getting African leaders to do what is obvious and that doesn’t cost anything: letting people be informed, as much as possible, about what their governments are up to and giving them a greater voice in influencing government choices. Power Africa and Feed the Future can leverage the experience and capacity of American agriculture and energy firms in partnership with African businesses and governments to do what is clearly profitable and socially good.
 While the general trends of the continent are encouraging, the reality remains that you are visiting a continent that is still the last frontier of human progress. Our economies have grown fast but absolute poverty and inequality stubbornly present. Over a span of 30 years – between 2000 and 2030 - our share of global GDP will climb from a meager 2 percent to 3 percent. Many people are still dying from preventable diseases. High unemployment, particularly among the youth, even the educated ones, endangers social and political stability. There is a huge skills gap. More children are in school than at any time in African history but 50 million children are out of primary and secondary schools. We erect shiny skyscrapers everyday yet 60 percent of city dwellers in African cities live in slums.  Governance institutions still need strengthening. The good news is that there is an emerging crop of new, young African leadership – in politics, private sector and civil society - able and ready to take on these challenges. They are the midwives of a new Africa - a new Africa that understands that aid may be necessary but should not be permanent, and that trade and investments is the future, and that installing a fairer international trade architecture should be our common objective. And we are glad that you have chosen to meet with some of these leaders.

For what it is worth, America’s global leadership remains robust – at least for now. One way to retain and strengthen it in the face of insecure world and a deepening economic and cultural competition is to project it for the good of humanity. And this is the expectation of most Africans – that America shouldn’t befriend a country just for security or strategic concerns but because of advancement of shared values – of freedom, equality, tolerance and human progress.
The Romans used to say ex Africa semper aliquid novi, meaning, Out of Africa, always something new. So, Mr. President, welcome to our Africa.
Mr. January Makamba is a Member of Parliament and Deputy Minister of Communication, Science and Technology in Tanzanian government. He is also the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader and Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellow.


ffernandes said...

Great perspective, Hon. Makamba. You have really touched on pertinent issues in Africa; poverty, education, technology, MDG Goals and yes Africa is moving and growing at a very fast rate.

The inter-state relationship between America and Tanzania should not only focus on security, and strategic alliances and benefits that are favoring just the US but should be more lucrative for the normal "mwananchi" in Tanzania.

The age of zero-sum is no longer there as we have other players who are already competing for a bite of the African cake like China, Middle East etc. Yes, this visit has been long overdue but better late than never!

Anonymous said...

Best article ever, continue with this spirit of writing

anon said...


Unknown said...

Clear and to the point this welcoming letter to presient Obama describes the opportunities and challenges faced by Africa. The future is promising and the past...past. Holding grunges against previous generations wouldn't help, it took two to tango; greedy european "dukes" and corrupted leaders... Africa should rely on its own strenghts to become an architect of his present and future. Constructive partnerships can be built with willing investors from any walk of life. Try to forget colours and races, seek godwill and African shall succeed. That's what I hope and pray for.

Anonymous said...

The advantage of this article is that it has a good back up, the information and it's contents are well researched. I am pleased to see that the demographic analysis are included in the article. Most of all, the article can be understood by many, non complicated words, metaphors or comparisons. Well done January,

Azaria Mbughuni said...

January, this letter captures some of the most pressing issues facing Tanzanians in particular and Africa in general. I must first applaud you for using current data to highlight the realities of life in Tanzania and suggesting a trajectory that could steer US/Tanzania relations in a direction that is of mutual benefit to both countries.

I noticed that the statistics and demographics you presented for Tanzania are not that different from other parts of the continent. This is not a coincident. The data illustrates the realities of life for most people in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa; it highlights the nature of Africa’s interactions with outsiders. This illustrates the fact that Africans have a shared common experience. This Pan-African experience, therefore, should provide us with a platform that unites us in our quest to improve the lives of all Tanzanians and Africans in general.

I am cognizant of the fact that these kinds of letters have to be written in a
certain tone for it to have maximum impact. There is one part that I must take you task in hopes that it can generate a constructive discussion. You write:

“You will hear murmurs that Americans and the Chinese are competing in Africa over Africa’s natural resources. These suspicions may be unfounded but they are a result of history..”

The above quote gets at the heart of what we must think carefully and creatively if we are to build a relationship with the outside world that will benefit our people. Off course, these “murmurs” and “suspicions” are a reality that history substantiates. I understand the wisdom of couching the sentence in the manner you did; yet this reality must be confronted head on, honestly, and openly. The pressing question is how to build relations with rich nations in such a manner as to insure maximum benefits for our country. For in the past, and I should add the present, the wealthy nations have only been interested in exploiting Africa’s resources with minimum benefits to Africa. It is an open secret that the wealthy nations need us as much as we need them. Let us confront this reality, remind ourselves, and strategize how we can come on top. The tendency has been to treat Africa as if it just needs the helping hand of the wealthy nations; that we need them more than they need us. This has given them a psychological advantage and an inferiority complex that continues to undermine us. Africa’s resources are essential in this competitive global economy. We must recognize this reality and use it to our advantage. America and China must deal with us in their competition for resources. This is a game we must play well if we are to come on top and remain relevant.