Africa is really bad at learning lessons from the past; but there are a few good students

Lessons on power-sharing fall on deaf ears in Burundi, on Ubuntu are thrown out in South Africa, and in Kenya, terrorists have a field day

LIBERIA was declared Ebola-free over the weekend, ending a 14-month nightmare that left 4,716 people dead, and over 10,000 infected by the virus.

It is the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, and it threatened to bring Liberia back to its knees, just as the country was starting to gain some reconstruction momentum following a devastating 12-year civil war.

Neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone are yet to bring their infections completely to a halt, though new infections are now in the single digits – just nine new infections were reported in the week of May 3.

As Liberia breathes a sigh of relief, questions remain as to how well prepared Africa is for the next big outbreak, and, if any lessons have truly been learned – not just for the countries at the epicentre of the outbreak, but for the rest of Africa that was watching at a distance.

If we look at the historical trends, and news coming out of the continent over the past few weeks, it suggests that Africa doesn’t do a very good job of learning from the past.

South Africa has been hit by a wave of xenophobic attacks in the past month, in which seven people have been killed and hundreds forced to flee their homes.

The level of intolerance, suspicion, and outright hostility that many South Africans have against foreign – mainly African – nationals mirrors the very same discrimination and prejudice that black South Africans suffered under the white racist apartheid regime.

It seems that the lessons that could have been learned from the oppression of apartheid, that would make South Africa a more inclusive, just and welcoming place in the spirit of Ubuntu, were not internalised at all.

In Central Africa

The same is playing out in Burundi, which has lived through decades of resentment and full-blown war between the two major groups in the country, the Hutu and the Tutsi.

Historically, the Tutsi held power, controlling the military, most of the civil service, the judicial system, and even higher education.

A civil war was sparked off by the killing of president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993, killing 300,000 people. Under international pressure, the warring factions negotiated a peace agreement in Arusha in 2000, which called for an ethnically-balanced military and government and democratic elections.

Pierre Nkurunziza has officially launched his re-election bid this week, even as protesters insist it is an unconstitutional third term – at least 19 people have been killed in the No Third Term protests.

With Nkurunziza intent on hogging power, it is clear that the lessons of ethnic balancing and power-sharing fell on shallow soil.

In neighbouring Rwanda, Paul Kagame is under a different kind of pressure – calls are mounting for the constitution to be amended to allow him to vie for a third term in 2017.

Women walk past a poster of Paul Kagame ahead of the Aug 7, 2010 elections. (Photo/AFP)

Like in Burundi, the Tutsi historically held power and were favoured by the Belgian colonial authorities, but unlike in Burundi, Tutsis did not consolidate power after independence but were targeted in genocidal killings, persecuted and many forced to flee into exile when a “Hutu-Power” government came into power in 1962.

Supporters of the third term bid say, among other things, that Kagame has done such a sterling job in lifting the country from the atrocity of the 1994 genocide - in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed – that he should be allowed to continue to lead the country.

Kagame is said to be keeping his options open, and it remains to be seen if Rwanda has gleaned any enduring lessons on the exercise of power as an imperative for the Rwandan political situation – the excellence of any one individual leader notwithstanding.

Terror lessons

In September 2013, al-Shabaab militants stormed the Westgate mall in Kenya firing indiscriminately and hurling grenades. Kenyan military inexplicably took three days to bring the siege to an end, and at the end of it, 67 people were dead.

There wasn’t any public accountability for the debacle, no heads rolling, and the official report from parliamentary inquiry into the matter was dismissed as “useless and shallow”.

A survivor of the attack in Garissa is comforted after arriving in Nairobi on April 4, 2015.

It meant that sadly, last month’s al-Shabaab attack at Garissa University wasn’t a surprise. This time the siege took shorter – 12 hours. But before you think that’s a good thing, more people were killed by the gunmen this time round, 148 people, and the government appalling response to the attack had even the most cynical Kenyans aghast, although this time small heads rolled.

Nigeria case

In West Africa, Nigeria celebrated the election of Muhammadu Buhari in March, and outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan was widely praised for not making a big fuss out of losing.

But Buhari will not be popping the celebratory champagne for long - Nigeria relies on oil for 70% of government financing, and Buhari will find that he is facing an economic situation that is in some ways, an unnerving echo of the Buhari I administration, almost exactly 30 years ago (1983-1985).

With the nation’s coffers full to overflowing following the oil spike of 1973-74, Nigeria spent most of its windfall on infrastructure projects  - but also, unwisely, began recklessly borrowing against anticipated future oil income. 

By the time Buhari took power in 1983 and oil prices began tumbling, Nigeria was unable to keep up on its debt payments, and the result was a severe downturn in the Nigerian economy, with the Gross Domestic Product contracting an astonishing 68.2% between 1980 and 1986.

Global oil prices have dropped nearly 50% in the past year, but Nigeria just might hold up better than the first time around.

Although Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala admitted that the country has already borrowed more than half the amount it budgeted for the full year as it struggles to deal with lower income from oil, improvements in agricultural output and a macroeconomic policy that has kept inflation below double figures is keeping the country above water.

Ethiopian star 

But Ethiopia is one country that is obsessed with outrunning some of the ghosts of the past. A devastating famine in the northern part of the country in 1983-85 led to an estimated 400,000 deaths – and the tragedy was famously immortalised in the Live Aid concerts and the Michael Jackson-Lionel Richie mega hit We are the World.

Analysts have argued more than half of these deaths have been attributed not to drought alone, but government policies that caused the famine to come earlier, strike harder, and extend further than would otherwise have been the case.

Since then, the Ethiopian government has embarked on major agricultural reform, and together with the World Food Programme and others, has been running hunger-relief programmes that give out not only food aid but seeds and help to turn drylands into productive acres.

The result is that during the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, which was called the worst drought in a generation, there were one-third the number of people suffering from the emergency than there might have been in “old” Ethiopia, according to Josette Sheeran, the former head of the WFP.


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