Africa Day May 25: 25 astonishing and fun facts we've learned about the continent

Bottom line: Africa is complicated.

May 25 is Africa Day.

Some countries, like South Africa, are holding a month of celebrations under the theme “We are Africa”.

In commemoration, here are 25 things you knew, or probably didn’t know, about this fair continent - some serious, some just fun:

1.    You can be First Lady of two different countries, like Graca Machel – she was first lady of Mozambique from 1975 to 1986, when her husband president Samora Machel was killed in a plane crash. She was later First Lady of South Africa from 1998-99, when her new husband Mandela was president of South Africa.

2.    Half of Africa’s fixed infrastructure stock – roads, railways, ports and “modern” buildings – is found in just four countries: South Africa, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.

3.    At least 20 sitting African presidents or prime ministers have run for election but have been defeated at the ballot; the number rises to 25 when we include “acting” or interim presidents, and the semi-autonomous territories like Puntland in Somalia.

4.    By 2050, Africa will be home to two in five of the world’s children. On current trends, almost 2 billion babies will be born in Africa in the next 35 years; in 1950 only 11 million African babies were born. By 2050 Nigeria will account for almost 10% of all births in the world, and its population would have overtaken that of the US.

5.    Niger has most reduced HIV incidence between 2001 and 2013 in Africa, with a 95% cut. Burundi reduced incidence by 90%, while Ethiopia and Eritrea have also made significant progress in this area, with 87% and 86% reduction. But Algeria, Angola and former HIV star performer Uganda have regressed, and seen an increase in HIV incidence.

6.    Sub-Saharan Africa generates just 68,000 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to that of Spain. Excluding South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa’s electricity output is 24,000 megawatts, far less than 40,000 megawatts available in New York City alone.

7.    Somalia is the world’s leading exporter of sheep and goats, with almost 4 million animals exported in 2011, despite its “war-torn” reputation. With approximately 52 million heads of cattle, neighbouring Ethiopia has the largest livestock population in Africa.

8.    Lake Malawi contains the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world. There are between 500 and 1,000 fish species, and it is home to a vast array of cichlids, the majority of which are only found in the lake.

9.    Groundwater makes up just 15% of Africa’s freshwater reserves, but it is the source of water for three out of four Africans.

10. You can grow your food in the city – in Zimbabwe, about 60% of Harare’s residents grow their own food, after rural plantation agriculture collapsed and inflation made the currency useless. In Africa, urban agriculture can be very lucrative – in Brazzaville, Congo, for example, urban farmers can make up to five times the national average income.

11. You would think that journalists, with their  presumed sharp political consciousness, would make great presidents. But history tells us that it is not necessarily so. One of Africa’s most brutal dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko, though trained as a soldier, also had a journalism career in the army. Rwanda’s first president Gregoire Kayibanda was trained as a journalist in Belgium. Founder of the virulently pro-Hutu party Parmehutu, Kayibanda nurtured and clarified what is now referred to as “genocide ideology”.

12. Burundi has been up in arms about Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term bid, but the odds favour success in circumventing term limits laws to allow African Big Men to remain in power, especially if they have already stayed a long time. Eleven countries in Africa: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Niger, Togo, Uganda, Algeria and Djibouti have all seen term-limit laws repealed. The majority of these leaders are veterans of African politics, and had been in power before the adoption of term-limiting constitutions in the 1990s.

13.  Coups, assassinations and presidential exiles are now rare in Africa – between 1960 and 1975, 47% of African presidents were either exiled, assassinated, executed or deposed by coup. Since 1999, this fate has only befallen 14% of African leaders. But close to 100 attempts and successful coups have recorded in the region since 1960.

14. But you can be deposed by coup twice, as befell Milton Obote in Uganda in 1971, when he was overthrown by Idi Amin, and again in 1985, when Tito Okello ousted him.

15. If you’re an African president and you don’t want to die in office, don’t go abroad for treatment, and make sure you have served for more than eight years. Eleven African leaders have died in office since 2008, and nine of them have died either away from home, or very shortly after returning home from getting medical treatment abroad; seven of them died after serving less than four years.

16. More than 177 ethnic groups were split by colonial borders in Africa, and if we were to redraw Africa’s borders to have each ethnic group in their own country, we would have at least 2,000 countries.

17.  Today, a quarter of Africa’s population lives within 100km of a sea coast, but in the next 1,000 years climate change related sea level rise could see major coastal cities such as Lagos, Banjul, Abidjan, Nouakchott and Port Harcourt all underwater. 

18. Two-thirds of Africa’s soil is endangered - 34 of Africa’s 54 countries reported over 20% in either the amount of land degraded or the number of population affected by land degradation.

19. The mobile phone comes first in Africa, before electricity, water, roads or even toilets. In the majority of African countries, mobile network covers over 90% of the land area, while an average of just three out of ten Africans uses sewerage services.

20. In Africa, the biggest stars on Twitter are not politicians, they are sports stars and entertainers: Africa’s most followed person on Twitter is Bassem Youssef, Egyptian satirist and TV host who now has more than 4.5 million followers.

21.  The richer an African country is, the less swayed its young people are by the latest fashion brands, and the more frugal and financially prudent they tend to become. Young consumers in faster-growing (but relatively poorer in per capita terms) Nigeria and Kenya are more brand-conscious, than the relatively richer South Africa and Egypt.

22. Africa produces 71% of the world’s tantalum – without this the world’s production of mobile phones and laptops would come to a standstill.

23. Africa has the world’s most dangerous roads – the continent has only 2% of the world’s registered vehicles but accounts for a full 16% of all its road-related deaths. Just seven African countries account for nearly two thirds—64%—of all road deaths. These are Nigeria, DRC, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. 

24. Ethiopia is landlocked, but the state-owned shipping company has 17 ships. Its neighbour Kenya is a coastal country, with a national shipping company, but not a single ship.

25. Cleopatra lived closer to the Arab Spring revolutions than she did to the building of the Great Pyramid. She missed the completion of the pyramids by 2,491 years, and the Arab Spring by 2,040 years.

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