The Moral Bankruptcy of Failed African States [Prof. Alemayehu G.Mariam]

africa_map1404667202Are crimes against children crimes against humanity?

According to the latest Failed States Index, 6 out of the top 10 and 18 out of the top 25 “most failed states on earth” are found in Africa. This commentary is not about beating the dead hyena of the failed African “state”. Nor is it about the failure of statecraft in much of Africa and the ineptitude of lame African governments and regimes to provide their citizens basic and essential services, maintain public safety, control widespread corruption and state-sponsored criminality, mitigate widespread violation of human rights and bridge the ever widening gap between the African haves and have-nots. I am concerned here about the immorality of failed African states and their lost moral compass(ion) to care for their most vulnerable and unquestionably most important members.   

First, what exactly is the African failed state? For many, it is a wistful imitation of what a real state is. The African failed state is to a real state as Coca Cola is to health food. (Boycott Coca Cola in Ethiopia!) For the West and its multilateral economic and political institutions, the African failed state is an object of charity, debt peonage and aid bondage.  For Western academics, the African failed state is a case study in “state-cide” and an object of scholarly inquest. For the cynics and critics, it is the object of mockery and caricature. For those who are morally outraged, the African failed state is morally bankrupt institution justly deserving of moral condemnation and censure. For the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy Magazine who jointly publish the Failed States Index (renamed to Fragile States Index in 2014 to be politically correct), the African failed state has earned very low scores on 12 social, economic and political indicators.

The late U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey who in 1948 urged the Democratic Party to “walk into the sunshine of human rights” and later became the lead author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, observed, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. ” If there were a “Morally Bankrupt States Index”, the vast majority of African states would be ranked at the very top.  How these poor excuses for “government”, “regime” and “state”  “treat those at the dawn” and early morning of their lives in the continent is a low down dirty shame.

Child abductions

Three months after a terrorist group kidnapped nearly 300 Nigerian girls, the Nigerian government claims it has no clue where they are and has mounted no credible effort to search and recover them. All the king’s men and drones could not find them either. In the beginning, the kidnapping of the girls sparked global moral outrage and condemnation.  First lady Michelle Obama expressed her “outrage’’ at the girls’ abduction and took pictures carrying a placard with the hashtag “#Bring Back Our Girls”.  She personalized the whole sordid affair. “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” declared Mrs. Obama. Too bad Nigerian President and Mrs. Goodluck Johnathan do not feel that way; at least they have not said so. How could 300 girls simply disappear without a trace in a country that prides itself as the “Giant of Africa”?

“Child soldiers”

The lack of moral outrage and the failure to take decisive action to secure and ensure the well-being and safety of African children is the greatest unreported and continuing crime of African “leaders”. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, hundreds of thousands of children are abducted every year by rebel, militia and government forces and forced to become child soldiers. Rural African children continue to be kidnapped from their homes, while walking to or from school, doing daily chores and even living in refugee camps. Boys as young as ten years old have been taught to use firearms bigger than themselves and often beaten and drugged to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity including murders, rapes, torture, amputations and other unspeakable atrocities. Abducted girls are often raped and forced into sexual slavery and held to perform domestic chores.  

The DRC has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child soldiers in the world. The so-called Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda has abducted tens of thousands of boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves. Its infamous leader Joseph Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court prosecutor for war crimes and crimes against humanity for ordering the abductions. Few have ever been held accountable for the crimes committed against these children.  Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, one of the most vicious warlords in the DRC, is the only suspect to be tried and convicted in the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers.   

Child labor

The failure of many African states to control or mitigate child labor practices is another manifestation of their moral bankruptcy. Child labor is “work that harms children or keeps them from attending school.” Millions of African children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work under conditions that are considered inhumane and illegal under international and even domestic laws, hazardous or extremely exploitative. In the DRC, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 15 labor in the mines to satisfy the voracious appetites of Chinese companies for copper, cobalt and other rare earth metals.  A United Nations country profile report estimated about one third of all Kenyan children aged 5–14 were engaged in child labor. In Nigeria, an estimated 20 million children under the age of 14 work in hazardous conditions and very long hours.  According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Labor Study,

Children in Ethiopia are engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including in dangerous activities in agriculture and domestic service. Although evidence is limited, there is reason to believe that the worst forms of child labor are used in the production of apples, coffee, cotton, onions, bananas, flowers, sugarcane, and tea.  Children working in agriculture may use dangerous tools, carry heavy loads, and apply harmful pesticides. Children  herding livestock may suffer injuries such as being bitten, butted, gored, or trampled by animals. Children, mostly girls, work in domestic service, potentially exposing them to sexual and other forms of abuse. Child domestics in Ethiopia may also suffer from a variety of mental health problems. Children collect firewood and water, which may require them to walk long distances with heavy loads.

Invisible children

There are millions of African “invisible children,” orphaned by AIDS, violence, displacement and war. They are forgotten by the leaders of failed African states. These children survive as internally displaced persons or refugees in overcrowded, unhygienic and disease–ridden conditions. They are often victimized by criminal gangs within the refugee camps and others raiding the camps. Child refugee girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. The vast majority of displaced and refugee children have undergone extremely traumatic experiences including witnessing extreme violence on family members or others. These children in general suffer from significant psychological problems including extreme anxiety, depression, social withdrawal and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Child malnutrition

Sub-Sahara Africa has the highest rates of chronic malnutrition among children in the world.  Chronic malnutrition, sometimes described as a “hidden hunger”, “occurs when a child’s intake of nutrients (fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, etc.) is insufficient to sustain the needs of the child’s body.”  Chronically malnutritioned children suffer significant deficiencies in physical and mental growth and are prone to illnesses.

Child malnutrition is most severe in Ethiopia.  According to a 2013 study jointly conducted by the African Union Commission, NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency, the Economic Commission for Africa and the UN World Food Programme,

more than 2 out of every 5 children in Ethiopia suffer from stunting, which is a lifelong condition that results when children miss out on critical nutrients while in the womb or during the first five years of their lives.  As many as 81% of all cases of child undernutrition and its related pathologies go untreated.  28% of all child mortality in Ethiopia is associated with undernutrition.  16% of all repetitions in primary school are associated with stunting. Child mortality associated with undernutrition has reduced Ethiopia’s workforce by 8%.  67% of the adult population in Ethiopia suffered from stunting as children. The annual costs associated with child undernutrition are estimated at Ethiopian birr (ETB) 55.5 billion, which is equivalent to 16.5% of GDP. Eliminating stunting in Ethiopia is a necessary step for its growth and transformation.

In a Foreward to this study, Amha Kebede, “Director-General Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute”, with bureaucratic detachment noted, “As the Government of Ethiopia moves forward in the implementation of the Growth and Transformation Plan, we need to emphasize the importance of eliminating undernutrition.”

Piercing through the veil of moral depravity or African “economic growth and transformation”

African leaders, their overpaid and over-pampered poverty pimps and mindless international media jockeys and parrots would have us believe that Africa is on the rise and undergoing dramatic renaissance and development.  The chic talk and narrative about Africa is a fairy tale of “economic growth, renaissance and transformation.” They say Africa’s economy is growing by leaps and bounds. Africa is earning billions in foreign exchange through its extractive industries, international trade and tourism. They say Africa is becoming a mecca for foreign investment; GDP growth rates are going through the roof; per capita income is doubling and tripling; poverty is shrinking and the African middle class expanding. They say Africa has more millionaires and billionaires today than ever before. Africans are interconnected by mobile phones and other communication technology. Some doltish leaders of African failed states even have the audacity to claim that their countries will join the ranks of the “middle-income” countries of the world in less than one-half decade.

But there is something fundamentally wrong with the rosy picture painted by the poverty pimps and the international media cheerleaders of failed African states. Their narratives always underplay and overlook the structural corruption, the crushing debts and the fatal addiction of failed African states to Western aid and loans. They often give lip service to these “warts” as temporary setbacks for the African economic juggernaut. Africans are fed the baloney that Africa can escape underdevelopment and achieve “growth and transformation” by exporting agricultural commodities, raw materials, metals and minerals.

So who the hell cares about African “growth and transformation” that is not built upon the precious foundation of  Africa’s youth? Can anyone honestly argue that Africa can be economically developed when its children are chronically malnourished, poorly educated, denied minimal conditions of personal security, forgotten in refugee camps and subjected to all forms of violence and exploitation? Who will lift Africa from the abyss of poverty and deliver her onto the mountain top of prosperity? Certainly not the failed and morally bankrupt leaders of failed African states!

Without heavy investments in its youth Africa will fall not rise, it will fall. It has fallen. Depraved indifference to Africans in the “dawn of their lives” will not create a continent in renaissance; it will keep Africa the “Dark Continent”.  Without the strong shoulders and wings of its children, Africa will not be lifted out of poverty; Africa will remain chained in its poverty trap and continue to sink deeper into an abyss of debt, deficit, famine, scarcity, corruption, underdevelopment and beggary.

But the tea leaves bode well for Africa’s children. A report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation concluded that in the next three generations, 41% of the world’s youth will be African. Africa is the only continent with a significantly growing youth population. Western Europe is in population decline; Latin America and Asia are holding the demographic line. That report predicts by 2040 the African labor force will be larger than that of China or India. By 2050, Africa’s labor force will be at least three times bigger than Europe’s and represent a quarter of the world’s total workforce. Sheer numbers alone do not mean much, but imagination is the only limit for what Africa’s children could do for themselves and the world if they had states, governments and regimes that cared enough to make them competitive on the global market.

“How do we ensure that the African youth will compete at the global level not only due to sheer numbers? What is the future that we are creating for our most precious resource?” asked the Mo Ibrahim Foundation report. I put the same questions to Africa’s morally bankrupt leaders!

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.  

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