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Africa’s moving, one step forwards, two steps back
Charles Onyango Obbo
Posted: 1 year 1 month

Last week, a famine was declared in war-torn South Sudan.

Some 100,000 people are facing starvation, and a further million are classified as being on the brink of famine, a statement from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said.

The total number of food insecure people could rise to 5.5 million by the middle of the year.

Though East and Southern Africa are facing their worst drought in decades, the South Sudan famine has little to do with the elements.

“This famine is man-made… there is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security, both for relief workers and the crisis-affected people they serve,” said WFP country director Joyce Luma.

In other words, President Salva Kiir and his warring comrades and ex-comrades are to blame. Indeed, farther north, Ethiopia has been ravaged by the worst drought to hit it in over 50 years.

Millions don’t have enough to eat, yes, but people haven’t died as they did in the horrific famine of the 1980s during the rule of military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, when over 400,000 people perished.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front is not any more democratic than Mengistu’s junta, but it is more enlightened and competent. Many of the fields that were littered with bodies in the 1983-1985 famine, in recent years have become lush irrigated expanses of food crops.

The different outcomes in South Sudan, (which the UN fears will soon be joined by Somalia and Nigeria) and Ethiopia speak to something bigger.

There are some things that African governments have been able to finally solve in the past 20 years. It is the “next level” issues requiring the ability to deal with complexity, and to innovate, that are now a problem.

Governments have built roads in many countries, but have failed to create an economy around them.

Hundreds of thousands of classrooms have been built in a spree of universal primary education provision, and millions more African children go to school, but the quality of education has declined.

Health centres have been built in record numbers, but they have no doctors and medicines.

Though the continent, as a whole, still has a huge energy deficit, a record number of dams have been in the past 15 years. But the power cannot be distributed, because grids are antiquated.

Corruption and nepotism lock the most talented people out of public jobs, and appallingly poor leadership compounds the problem.

In Uganda in 2015, an amazing story broke about Silver Mwesigwa, the Speaker of Isingiro district in the west of the country.

Most pupils in the district were failing the primary leaving exam, and in 2011 only two passed in First Grade. The main health centre in the district had no medicine and the workers weren’t showing up. He decided to do something about it, and joined politics.

Working with the same budget, in 2014 six pupils in the school in his village alone passed in First Grade. The health centre had 32 professionals, including three medical doctors.

Later in the year, he stood for elections to be the chairman of the district. With his record, you would think he was a shoo-in. He was beaten badly in the primaries.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3