“Disaster parades today with impunity through the length and breadth of much of Africa:war, genocide, dictatorship, military government, corruption, collapsed economy, poverty, disease, and every ill attendant upon political and social chaos.”
Chinua Achebe,African writer, Another Africa, 1998.
“From South Africa to Botswana, from Ghana to Senegal, democratic governments are ushering in a new era of vitality and development.”
Jesse Jackson, U.S. special envoy to Africa,
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 29, 1998.
Africa is the world’s second largest continent (next to Asia) in both area and population. Its area of 11,699,000 square miles is more than three times the size of the United States, and its 1990 population of 642 million made up 12 percent of the world’s total. Africa encompasses over fifty nations, ranging in size from Nigeria (with a population of more than 120 million) to small island countries such as Cape Verde (population 424,000). Africa is commonly divided into two regions delineated by the Sahara Desert, which runs through northern Africa. The countries north of the Sahara are generally considered more developed than those in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the continent’s population resides.With an estimated one thousand different languages spoken and at least as many distinct ethnic groups, Africa is perhaps the most linguistically and ethnically diverse of all the world’s continents.Two hundred ethnic groups have at least half a million people; no single group accounts for more than five percent of Africa’s total population.
For much of history, non-Africans have referred to Africa— especially sub-Saharan Africa—as the “Dark Continent.”This was a reflection of European and American ignorance of Africa’s interior geography and rich cultural and political history. Europeans established trading posts on Africa’s coasts beginning in the late 1400s and over the next centuries developed an extensive trade with the peoples they encountered—a trade that included the exportation of African slaves to New World colonies. However, due to disease, topography, and African resistance, lit- tle European exploration or penetration of Africa’s large interior was done until the nineteenth century. “Kept on the fringes of Africa, and ignorant of it,” writes historian Robert Garfield, “Europeans turned the situation around and assumed it was Africans who were isolated. They thus created the myth of the ‘Dark Continent,’ though the darkness was only in European minds.” Europe’s rush to colonize Africa in the nineteenth century was motivated in part by a quest to “enlighten” African peoples with European religion and civilization.
In contemporary times Africa has remained a “Dark Continent” for many not because of geographic isolation or foreign ignorance, but because of the frequent humanitarian disasters and political misfortunes that have brought global attention to the region. “The next time you read about Africa in the news,” writes Liberian journalist C.William Allen, “it will most likely be in a story about a military coup d’etat, political corruption, [or] a catastrophe of major proportions.” Sub-Saharan Africa, which contains a tenth of the world’s people, is the location of half the planet’s wars and refugees and most of its famines. In the 1990s alone Africans have suffered through continuing war in Angola, a collapse of government, ethnic conflict, and starvation in Somalia, slavery and war in Sudan, genocide and massive refugee flows in Rwanda, a brutal civil war in Liberia, and political repression and corruption in many other countries. Even in nations that have escaped major wars or famines, Africans have been faced with a steady decline in their quality of life as measured by poverty rates, school enrollments, per capita incomes, and life expectancies.
In his book Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, American journalist Keith B. Richburg writes, “Africa’s children are the most likely on earth to die before the age of five. Its adults are least likely to live beyond the age of fifty. Africans are, on average, more malnourished, less educated, and more likely to be infected by fatal diseases than the inhabitants of any other place.”
Some observers, like Richburg, have concluded that Africa’s problems of poverty, underdevelopment, conflict, and misgovernment are “intractable.” Others, such as foreign policy analyst David F. Gordon and former member of Congress Howard Wolpe, have argued that such extreme pessimism is unwarranted. “While some conflict-ridden countries have deteriorated into ‘failed states’ featuring terrible humanitarian disasters,” they assert, “other African nations are in the midst of a remarkable economic and political renewal.”Wars and political conflict in some countries, such as South Africa and Mozambique, have been successfully resolved. Twenty-six African states held multiparty elections in 1996 and 1997. Infant mortality rates in Africa have declined. Economic growth rates in 21 nations were more than twice as high as respective population growth rates in 1995 and 1996. Such positive and hopeful developments, they conclude, have been obscured by “a stubborn conventional wisdom—Afro-pessimism—that views the continent as little more than a giant basket case.”
The authors featured in Africa: Opposing Viewpoints address some of the major problems facing the continent; most offer possible solutions as well.The questions debated include:What Economic Development Strategies Are Best for Africa? What Policies Can Best Foster Peace in Africa? What Is the State of Human Rights in Africa? How Should Africa’s Wildlife Be Managed? The book presents a wide range of viewpoints on countries ranging from Algeria in the north to South Africa in the south, and enables readers to gain some understanding of the issues surrounding the diverse continent of Africa.