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Letter from America (4)

Source: Prof. George Adebiyi
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US President Obama just made a historic visit to Ghana this July. The visit is historic for a variety of reasons. In the first place, Obama is the first African American to be elected President of the USA in its over 200-year history. That qualifies him to be the first African American US President to visit any African country. Ghanaoccupies a special position in the annals of sub-Saharan Africa; it was the first country to gain independence from a major European colonial power.

Before proceeding further I have a confession to make. I am not by profession a historian nor a journalist, and I feel a little bit out of my depth dabbling in an area that historians must have the last word. Journalists as a rule do not report “dog bites man” as news, but rather the proverbial “man bites dog.” The little history I know was from my secondary school days. Regrettably, in the early 1960's when Nigeriawas just emerging from years of British rule, the history we took was that of the British Empire. I learnt of the “black hole of Calcutta” in India, the 13 colonies in America and went as far as the declaration of independence in 1776. I had a classmate who crammed the entire chapter of the events that led to America's declaration of independence; he reproduced the chapter verbatim in one of our history quizzes. We missed out completely on the opportunity to study the history of Nigeria, let alone the history of other African countries. In any case, even if we had the opportunity to study African history, we would have done so almost entirely through the eyes of the British. Today Africais blessed with a cadre of scholars of history that can tell the story of that part of the world in a diverse, yet authentic manner. I am an engineer not a historian, but I thank God for the internet, and for Google and Yahoo search engines. Virtually all that I am eager to share with you derive from such sources.

Ghana is located in West Africa and is one of 50 or so countries in Africa. The official website of the country (http://www.ghana.gov.gh) lists key facts about Ghana. It is a country of a little over 20 million people with a land area of a little over 92,000 square miles (nearly the size of Wyoming in the United States). English is the official language. Local languages include Akan, Ga, Ewe, Dagbani, and Hausa. By the way, Hausa is a language that is widely spoken in several countries in West Africa. Nearly 70% of Ghanaians are Christians and about 16% are Muslims. The country's monetary unit is the Cedi.

By most accounts, human habitation of the land area that is now Ghana probably occurred as far back as 10,000 B.C. Artifacts such as pottery found at a Stone Age site near Ghana's capital, Accra, are dated to around 4,000 B.C. The rise of modern Ghana is, however, often traced to around the 15th century. The country was extremely rich in gold, and was named Gold Coast up and until it gained independence in 1957. Portugalwas first in setting up trading settlement in the area. However, in the 1500s, demand for slaves in the Americastransformed the west coast of Africa to principal exporter of slaves for the New World. One source estimated that over 6 million slaves were shipped from West Africa to the Americas with about 4.5 million of that number between 1700 and 1810. Probably as many as 5,000 a year were shipped from the Gold Coast alone.

First the Portuguese, and later the British, the Europeans could not resist the plunder of Ghana's minerals. It is awfully depressing to read of the infamous Scramble for Africa that occurred from the 1870's to the early 1910's. To borrow from the words used by Belgium's King Leopold II, all of Africa was to the Europeans the “magnificent African cake” that was theirs to share. The Berlin Conference of 1884 – 1885 established ground rules for dividing this magnificent cake. The ground rules included the so-called “principle of effectivity” requiring effective occupation of the colonies. Surprise, surprise! The inhabitants of Africa were not invited, nor were they privy to the party. According to one source, the shared objective of the European colonial powers was exploitation. There were differences in governance, however. For example, the British established a system of indirect rule over much of their colonies. At the other extreme was Belgiumwhose King Leopold rule has been described as a reign of terror. It is estimated that as many as 10 million Congolese were murdered during that period. It is a sad irony to observe that Leopold's Congo is still unsettled today despite the huge mineral resources that the region is blessed with.

The experiences of post-independence Ghanain several respects speak of the struggles of much of post-colonial Africa to deliver on the deep yearnings of its peoples. Yes, Ghanawas first in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence from Britain, but it was also amongst countries that punctuated constitutional governance with spells of military rule. Ghanacelebrated 50 years of independence a couple of years ago, and again, the country stands today as a beacon of hope to the rest of Africa.

President Obama chose to visit Ghanaand was asked pointedly why he chose Ghanafor his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa. Here is the response clipped from a source on the internet:

“Well, part of the reason is because Ghanahas now undergone a couple of successful elections in which power was transferred peacefully, even a very close election. I think that the new President, President Mills, has shown himself committed to the rule of law, to the kinds of democratic commitments that ensure stability in a country. And I think that there is a direct correlation between governance and prosperity. Countries that are governed well, that are stable, where the leadership recognizes that they are accountable to the people and that institutions are stronger than any one person have a track record of producing results for the people. And we want to highlight that.”

The whole world listened intently to President Obama's address to the elected representatives of Ghana during his very short but historic visit to the country. Many have described the address as a “tough love” message to Africa. Among several things in the speech, there were four critical areas that the President referred to: Democracy, Opportunity, Health, and Peaceful Resolution of Conflict. President Obama extolled the virtues and benefits of developing strong and sustainable democratic governments and institutions, governments that respect the will of the people, that govern by consent and not coercion, leaders that do not enrich themselves but rather govern with transparency.

Opportunities abound for Africato rise to its potential and realize the promise and dreams of its people. Most of Africa is rich in mineral and natural resources, yet the continent has remained very poor. President Obama warned against dependence on commodities or a single export that has a tendency to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. He went on to enunciate the studied experience of other nations which clearly show that countries thrive when they invest in people and in their infrastructure. It may be relevant to bring up at this juncture a landmark document that was produced around 1980, the Lagos Plan of Action for the economic development of Africa. Here are a few excerpts from the document:

· “We view, with disquiet, the over-dependence of the economy of our continent on the export of basic raw materials and minerals. This phenomenon had made African economies highly susceptible to external developments and with detrimental effects on the interests of the continent.”

· “We therefore resolve … to unite our efforts in the economic field. To this end, certain basic guidelines must be borne in mind:

· Africa's huge resources must be applied principally to meet the needs and purposes of its people;

· Africa's almost total reliance on the export of raw materials must change. Rather, Africa's development and growth must be based on a combination of Africa's considerable natural resources, her entrepreneurial, managerial and technical resources and her markets (restructured and expanded), to serve her people. Africa, therefore, must map out its own strategy for development and must vigorously pursue its implementation.

· Africa must, cultivate the virtue of self-reliance. This is not to say that the continent should totally cut itself from outside contributions. However, these outside contributions should only supplement our own effort: they should not be the mainstay of our development;

· As a consequence of the need for increased self-reliance, Africamust mobilize her entire human and material resources for her development;

· Each of our States must pursue all-embracing economic, social and cultural activities which will mobilise the strength of the country as a whole and ensure that both the efforts put into and the benefits derived from development are equitably shared; …”

President Obama was right on the mark. What are the stark realities in Africa's independent nations? In ancient Ghana it was Gold, and then more recently it was cocoa. Today, there is talk of oil in Ghana.

In Nigeria, oil became the black gold, and the country has for many years been near the top of the list of oil exporters to the world. I remember a quote from the ancient mariner who lamented, “Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink.” A similar sorry statement can be made about energy in Nigeria: “Energy, energy everywhere, but hardly any for use in Industry, the Home or on the Road…” Here are a few facts related to the energy crunch in Nigeria:

• Virtually all oil produced is refined overseas and refined petroleum is then imported to meet huge demand and consumption in Nigeria.

• Local refining capacity is well below the level of demand due to the fact that there are too few refineries (four in all) in the country and they frequently operate well below capacity.

As they say, it does not take a rocket scientist or an economist to understand that when you import refined petroleum and pay for it from your crude oil exports, you end up giving away a lot of your crude oil for free to the developed countries. The alternative is to develop your God-given resources to meet the needs of your people first – this is a win-win situation for the nation. This is the unwritten story of several developed countries, including the USA.

Energy is an issue that is topical and of considerable interest globally today. President Obama pointed to the great opportunities that African countries have at a time like this. There are environmental challenges that the entire world must address urgently, and happily, while much of Africatoday is not a major part of the problem, it must consciously avoid the paths that have led to the daunting challenge of warding off calamities like global warming and widespread pollution of our environment. There is an abundance of both non-renewable energy resources (coal, gas, oil) and renewable resources, solar direct and indirect forms (wind power, hydropower, biomass), geothermal energy and other clean energy resources. I am a solar energy enthusiast, and when I hear President Obama speak of opportunities in Africa for responsible and sustainable energy development, I say a big Amen to that. Thank God solar energy is not a form of energy that you can bundle up in a tanker and export to the rest of the world; it is a form of energy that the good Lord has placed in everyone's back yard. You can use it to meet some of your needs, or you can just let it heat up your house so you have a bigger heat load for your air conditioner to battle to get rid of.

On Peaceful Resolution of Conflict, President Obama lamented the wanton and senseless conflicts and strife in many parts of Africa. Why, for example, have the people of Congo/Zaire been killing each other for so long? I remember as far back as 1959 when I entered the secondary school that one of our seniors admitted to the Higher School Certificate (HSC) programme went on to join the Army instead, and was one of those sent to the Congo to keep the peace. Those were the days of Lumumba and Tshombe, and, yes, Mobutu. Very recently, Mobutu again resurfaced in the news! One report years ago stated that Mobutu acquired personal wealth to the tune of $4 billion. The recent news is that a European Judge has ruled that Mobutu's family is entitled to millions of dollars in Swiss Bank (as opposed to the people of Congofrom whom the money came in the first place). Going back to the legacy of the colonial powers remember how King Leopold II of Belgiumruthlessly and brutally killed the people of Congo to the tune of millions. The Congois richly blessed with mineral wealth, and what ought to bless the people has tragically turned into a curse. Mercenaries are never far away from places that possess valuable commodities and resources. Pirates are active off the coast of East Africa. Militants have been on-and-off active in oil rich African countries. Who provides the resources for these operations?

I applaud US President Obama's challenge to African leaders to quit blaming others and their past for the way things are today. Africa's future is in its hands, for better or for worse. Like other nations in the world Africans must learn to resolve differences peacefully. In the UK, for example, the Irish were at war for many years with themselves and the British. Somehow, the war has been over for many years now. The same can happen in Africa. I love Democracy. It is one system that allows both minority and majority views to be expressed. Let us fight at the level of ideas. This is the best and most profound expression of our human dignity and genius.

George Adebiyi, Ph.D.
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
[email protected]