THE situation in Libya right now is often described as fractured, chaotic, anarchic, and even bloody. But there is a big surprise awaiting us there.
The country is the epicentre of tragic news coming out of North Africa this week – first, an estimated 800 African migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, having set off sail from the Libyan coast hoping to reach Italy.
Then Islamic State militants beheaded and shot 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya, which sparked off protest marches in Addis Ababa.
After the fall of dictator Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, various armed groups that opposed him refused to disarm; they have now formed two parallel governments, both jostling for the control of Libya’s capital Tripoli.
The internationally-recognised administration headed by Abdullah al-Thinni was ousted from the capital Tripoli last year, and operates out of hotels in the eastern city of Benghazi – and all the while, the Islamic State has taken advantage of the anarchy to establish a foothold on the African continent.
So it’s entirely surprising that the just-released World Happiness Report would rank Libya as the happiest country in Africa.
Thrill and elation
It suggests that outsiders have probably underestimated the joy that came with the fall of Gadaffi - a strict, controlled and repressive society suddenly had its shackles cast off, like a child being set loose in a candy shop.
And even if it appears to be disorder and lawlessness ruling the day, in it all there’s likely to be an odd element of thrill and elation.
Algeria is the second-happiest country in Africa, and in contrast to Libya, has been spared most of the turmoil that has rocked North Africa in the past four years.
So depending on a country’s initial conditions, falling into near anarchy, or the opposite - remaining stable in a tumultuous neighbourhood, can strangely have the same happy result.
In Africa, money doesn’t buy you happiness – at least, not always.
Mauritius comes third in Africa, the little island nation regularly tops all the “good” rankings in Africa.
In fourth place is Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, which remains happy despite the havoc wreaked by Boko Haram attacks in the north in recent years.
Fifth is Zambia, which tends to be a quiet land, at least by African standards. And the self-declared Somaliland republic comes in sixth.
The autonomous territory in the north of Somalia has a stable, functioning government, with several successful and democratic elections, a large contrast to the instability that has wracked southern Somalia, particularly in the past few years with the rise of the Shabaab terror group.
The most miserable countries in Africa are not the poorest, or even the ones most affected by terrorism, war or instability. They are a mixed bag, and in fact, some of them have posted strong economic growth figures.
Togo is the unhappiest country in Africa, and neighbouring Benin is third from last. It’s intriguing that two gloomy countries could be right next to the very happy Nigeria.
“Keeping up with the Awolowos”
Perhaps it’s a situation of relative, rather than absolute unhappiness: when the Togolese and Beninois see the opportunities and progress in Nigeria, and compare it with their own, their own countries seem dreary and lacklustre.
Burundi and Rwanda are the second and fourth unhappiest in Africa. Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza is on a mission to run for a third term, cracking down on protesters, and the political space is constricting.
Rwanda’s case is somewhat unexpected, considering the immense progress that the country has achieved in the past few years.
Its economy has grown nearly 7% every year over the past decade, infant mortality has recorded the most precipitous decline ever recorded in the world, it regularly tops the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings, and the social impact of ICT is the highest in Africa.
Still, there are many political and social restrictions – it is ranked “Not Free” by Freedom House. Rwanda has also recorded the second-largest drop in happiness in Africa from the previous World Happiness Report survey in 2005-2007.
It seems that you can’t substitute freewheeling personal freedoms for economic growth.
The biggest positive change from the previous happiness survey has been in Zimbabwe.
During the previous survey, Zimbabwe was in the depths of a financial crisis and near economic collapse; according to reports, inflation peaked at 79.6 billion percent in November 2008. The country abandoned its currency in 2009.
But since then the country’s economy has stabilised, various international currencies are in circulation, principally the US Dollar. A combination of debt-fuelled public spending, a spike in the international prices of its export minerals – diamond, gold and nickel – and Chinese investors with deep pockets has helped preside over an economic recovery.
Sierra Leone and Liberia, too, have recorded large increases in happiness, though the survey was done before the Ebola outbreak last year that killed at least 11,000 people in the two countries, as well as neighbouring Guinea.
The largest drop in happiness was in Egypt, which jubilantly ousted its long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, only to be plunged into political and social unrest that would end up seeing democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi removed by military man Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who then became president in 2013.
The losses and gains in happiness are very large, the report says – for Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the average boosts in happiness exceeded what would be expected from a doubling of per capita incomes.
But for the countries with the biggest drops in average life evaluations, including Egypt, Rwanda, Senegal and Central African Republic, the losses were more than would be expected from a halving of GDP per capita.
So in Africa, you could say that money doesn’t always buy you happiness – but happiness can almost buy you money.