Africa: A tragic continent

Walter E. Williams

8/13/2003 12:00:00 AM - Walter E. Williams

Anyone who believes President Bush's Africa initiative, including sending U.S. troops to Liberia, will amount to more than a hill of beans is whistling Dixie. Maybe it's overly pessimistic, but most of Africa is a continent without much hope for its people. Let's look at it.

According to a July 30 Wall Street Journal article, "If Economists Are So Smart, Why Is Africa So Poor?" written by Hoover Institution senior fellows Douglas North, Stephen Haber and Barry Weingast, "two-thirds of African countries have either stagnated or shrunk in real per capita terms since the onset of independence in the early 1960s. ... Most African nations today are poorer than they were in 1980 -- sometimes by very wide margins."

Poverty is not a cause but a result of Africa's problems. According to the Netherlands-based Genocide Watch, since 1960, around the time of independence, about 9 million black Africans have been slaughtered through genocide, politicide and mass murder. The Democratic Republic of the Congo leads the way with 2,095,000, closely followed by the Sudan with 2 million, Nigeria and Mozambique with a million each, Ethiopia 855,000, Rwanda 823,000, Uganda 555,000 and hundreds of thousands more in other countries.

There are a couple of especially sad observations one can make about this aspect of the ongoing tragedy. The first is that if an equivalent number of rhinos, giraffes and lions had been similarly slaughtered, the world would be in an uproar. We'd see demonstrations at the U.N. and African embassies. The second is there was indeed one African country that was the focal point of mass demonstrations, moral outcry and economic reprisals. It was South Africa.

But was South Africa the worst in terms of black lives lost? It turns out that about 5,000 South African blacks lost their lives. Do you see anything wrong with that picture: world silence in the wake of millions upon millions of black lives lost on the rest of the continent but world outrage in the case of South African apartheid and 5,000 lives lost? Might it be that white Africans are held to higher standards of civility; thus their mistreatment of blacks is unacceptable, while blacks and Arabs are held to a lower standard of civility and their mistreatment of blacks is less offensive?

President Bush has pledged to send more foreign aid to some African nations. Foreign aid has historically gone to governments. Instead of helping the poor, foreign aid has enabled African tyrants to buy cronies and military equipment to stay in power, not to mention establishing multibillion dollar "retirement" accounts in Swiss banks, should their regime be toppled.

What African countries need, the West cannot give. In a word, what Africans need is personal liberty. That means a political system where there are guarantees of private property rights and rule of law. It's almost a no-brainer. The "2003 Index of Economic Freedom," published by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, lists Botswana, South Africa and Namibia as "mostly free." World Bank 2002 country per capita GDP rankings put Botswana 89th ($2,980), South Africa 94th ($2,600) and Namibia 111th ($1,700). Is there any mystery why they're well ahead of their northern neighbors, such as Mozambique 195th ($210), Liberia 201st ($150) or Ethiopia 206th ($100)?

The lack of liberty means something else: A nation loses its best and most mobile people first. According to the 2000 census, there were 881,300 African-born U.S. residents. They're doing well in our country, and many are professionals sorely needed back home. While in attendance at a Washington, D.C., Nigerian affair, some years ago, I listened while the Nigerian ambassador admonished the mostly Nigerian audience to come back home. At the table where I was sitting, my Nigerian hosts broke out in near uncontrollable laughter.