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It’s been eighteen years since I first set foot in Africa. For the next five years I was going in and out of the place like it had a revolving door. I spent significant time as a military advisor in Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali. In 2015 my work brought me back to Africa, and the progress I have witnessed is almost unbelievable. Over the last two years I have worked in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Kenya and lately, back to Mali.
Every country I have visited in the past two years features a new airport, operating to modern standards. This is mostly due to Chinese investment in African infrastructure, driven by two needs; every year China must find work for one million new workers entering their work force, and they must feed their people.
The Chinese have built modern highways and bridges across Africa where before there were dirt tracks, dilapidated bridges of another era, or simply river fords or ferries. The Chinese have established huge operations for processing and canning food. If the Chinese footprint in Africa results in improved infrastructure, then good for them and good for the rest of us.
Consider everything that Africa has going for it. The continent is enormous; the entire continental United States plus all of Western Europe could fit within it, with room left over for China and a good portion of the Middle East. Africa centrally located, surrounded by oceans and bisected by enormous, navigable rivers. There are no great mountain ranges dividing the continent, it is rich in mineral resources, the climate and soil are perfect for agriculture, and there is almost unlimited manpower.
Almost fifty years since the end of European colonialization, however, Africa remains the poorest continent. Foreign exploitation is one reason; corruption and tribalism are the other two, and they are interconnected.
In African nations, there are no social security systems. If a person gains any kind of civil position that involves a salary – anything from postman to customs official right on up to prime minister – then he or she is expected to share the wealth with their family, their village, and their tribe. At the same time that person must acquire enough money to put away for retirement. This drives corruption.
Conversely, if one is of the wrong tribe, one may never have the opportunity to gain such a position. One may never have any opportunity or hope whatsoever. This hobbles a huge percentage of the population from any kind of incentive for hard work or any kind of entrepreneurship.
I first observed African tribalism as a military advisor. The host nation troops would be assembled, and I would inform the platoon leader or company commander where to go, what to do. He would give a command and the front two rows would snap and pop. The rest of the troops would shuffle their feet and go along with whatever was required. They were not of the same tribe as the officer in front of the formation. The most impressive African soldier I ever worked with was a corporal in the Ivorian Marine Commandos. If he was of the right tribe, he would have been a Colonel. Instead, in the purges following the coup and subsequent civil wars of the early 2000’s, he was imprisoned basically for the crime of being of the wrong tribe and he barely escaped with his life.
In my current work as a consultant to a humanitarian organization, I witness the opposite side of tribalism. Nowadays I work with the professional educated class. I relax and cool my heels in the best hotels in town – diplomatic standards. The service is notoriously lousy. It practically takes an act of Congress to get an order in, and one often has to speak up and wave to get a second beer, or the bill. The problem is that the wait staff are all employed because of their tribe, but as in a bureaucracy there is no opportunity for advancement unless somebody retires or somebody dies. There is no incentive, so why work hard? Life is hard, and it’s hot and humid so take it easy.
There is a darker side to the changes in Africa. The European and American embassies and international NGO (non-governmental organization) compounds have become mini-fortresses, with heavy physical security to include concertina wire, electrified fences, sandbagged fighting positions and rifle-toting security forces. The larger international hotels feature similar security, to include the kind of measures found in airports; x-ray machines and metal detectors. Beyond the usual coups and revolutions, Africa is very much a battleground of the Global War on Terror.
With all her resources, geographic advantages and nearly unlimited potential, Africa should be ruling the world. It is difficult to imagine she ever will, however. The constraints are cultural; in other words, self-imposed. Africa should rule the world, but she never will. Not this side of the Second Coming.
Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.