Mon, 06 Mar 2000

Will Annan finally put out Africa's fires?

By Michael Kibaara Muchiri

YOGYAKARTA (JP): While other continents are celebrating the turn of a century, Africa is in tears.

While major newspapers were yelling out their personalities of the year, decade and century, while genetically modified food engineering companies reap benefits in the developed world, and the rest of the world is perched for an Information Technology takeoff, Africa is lamenting her demise. For Africa, it is only the dawning of more misery.

South African President Thabo Mbeki's New Year message to Africans to aim for the stars in the new millennium, in line with his vision of an African renaissance, also castigated the West for largely ignoring Africa's problems of debts, disease and wars.

But his vision, unless backed up by the essential nitty-gritty from the United Nations and other countries, is somewhere off in cloud-cuckoo-land. The explosion of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is systematically wiping out Africa's best doctors, lawyers, lecturers, economists and businesspeople.

An apocalypse come too early, maybe, but the "dark" continent's dark moments cannot be darker.

So the pledge by U.S. Vice President Al Gore to seek US$150 million to combat the HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases mainly in African nations is welcome news. Gore, presiding over the first UN Security Council meeting on a health issue, kicked off a month of African sessions organized by the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, the council's president for January.

The council, while departing from tradition by introducing a health issue, was quick to note that AIDS is a threat to the continent's economic, social and political transformations. Against a background of fear and mistrust from some council members, notably China and Russia, the 15-member council agreed that the AIDS epidemic had reached the level of an international security issue.

The executive director of UNAIDS, Peter Piot, estimated that Africa would annually need between $1 billion to $3 billion to combat the disease, but currently receives only $160 million a year in official assistance. World Bank President James Wolfensohn lamented that Africa was losing teachers faster than they could be replaced, and that AIDS was now more effective than war in destabilizing African countries.

Statistics show that AIDS is the leading killer in sub- Saharan Africa, surpassing people killed in warfare. In 1998, 200,000 people died from armed conflicts compared to 2.2 million from AIDS. Some 33.6 million people have HIV around the world, 70 percent of them in Africa, thereby robbing countries of their most productive members and decimating entire villages.

About 13 million of the 16 million people who have died of AIDS are in Africa, according to the UN. What barometer is used to proclaim a holocaust if this number is not a sure measure?

There is no doubt that AIDS is the most serious threat to humankind, more serious than hurricanes, earthquakes, economic crises, capital crashes or floods. It has no cure yet. We are watching a whole continent degenerate into ghostly skeletons that finally succumb to a most excruciating, dehumanizing death. Gore said that his new initiative, if approved by the U.S. Congress, would bring U.S. contributions to fighting AIDS and other infectious diseases to $325 million.

Does this mean that the UN Security Council and the U.S. in particular have at last decided to remember Africa? Suddenly, AIDS was seen as threat to world peace, and Gore would ask the congress to set up millions of dollars on this case. The hope is that Gore does not intend to make political capital out of this by painting the usually disagreeable Republican-controlled Congress as the bad guy and hope the buck stops on the whole of current and future U.S. governments' conscience.

Maybe there is nothing left to salvage in Africa after all and this talk is about the African-American vote in November's U.S. presidential vote.

Although the UN and the Security Council cannot solve all African problems, the AIDS challenge is a fundamental one in that it threatens to wipe out man. The challenge is not one of a single continent alone because Africa cannot be quarantined.

The trouble is that AIDS has no cure -- and thus even the West has stakes in the AIDS challenge. Once sub-Saharan Africa is wiped out, it shall not be long before another continent is on the brink of extinction. Sure as death, Africa's time has run out, signaling the beginning of the end of the black race and maybe the human race.

Besides disease, other African woes include debt and war. Most of the AIDS infections can be indirectly or directly blamed on rampant poverty in the continent. Africa's debt is considered the main obstacle to the economic development of the continent and several campaigns have been launched to have it written off.

And the UN has been damningly quiet about African woes. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general from Ghana, has nearly done his term, and will be judged harshly by history for leaving his own house to burn to ashes while putting out his neighbors' fires.

Civil strife has been Africa's bane for as long as can be remembered. Wars abound in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mozambique, Angola, Algeria, Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo. War spots spread from north, south, and east to west; from inter-country wars, interethnic civil strife, to government-induced ethnic cleansing.

Even Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria has plunged into a religious war. Yet the world watches in a hands-off attitude as the senseless mayhem that has intermittently sprawled across Africa continues.

Once home to some of the world's best tourist destinations, Africa finds itself in a quagmire -- partly of its own making and partly the making of its colonial history.

As wars exacerbate Africa's plight, poverty abounds in a continent whose major claim to fame now is refugees. The colonialists' emphasis on overdependence on agriculture and tourism haunts this continent. What this means is that wars destabilize farming, farms being left with no one to attend to them. Then sets in a cyclical famine year in, year out. As if this is not enough, AIDS has finally and firmly crawled it's way to the top of the pile to drive the final nail in Africa's coffin.

The lead taken by Mbeki in his New Year's message, in attacking the West for failing to do enough to tackle African woes, should be hailed as a justified call.

Africa's debt service payments were about $31.5 billion, or some 25 percent of exports, at the end of 1998. Mbeki said the debt issue is closely related to the AIDS pandemic, which is threatening to wipe out a large portion of the African continent.

Mbeki has argued that poverty and AIDS infections are related, and the UN must take this as part of the integrated response to the challenge of poverty on the African continent. The major economies must address debts of African countries.

Africa's debt has been intractably linked to the continent's socioeconomic recovery. AIDS has cost African governments almost all of their health budgets, depriving other diseases of any attention. The most productive human resources, the cogs of their countries' economic wheels, once ill, mean lost man-hours. The families cannot cope without the breadwinner, let alone with the added strain from more and more family members falling ill.

The writer, studying for his master's in psychology at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, works at the Ministry of Education in Nairobi, Kenya.