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Should Africa celebrate rising life expectancy, as autism, malaria scare persists? By Adaoha Ugo-Ngadi

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The narrative that tends to dominate Africa is that of a supposedly ‘dark continent’ where, perhaps, life remains very brutish, nasty and short. The temptation to concur is very high, what with the imageries of war, hunger, disease and deaths that daily assail the sensibilities of those with access to media.

In sharp contrast, critics hold up the model of the much-talked about advanced economies as standard bearers, shoving into our sullen faces romantic pictures of good life, defined by easy access to food, shelter, clothing, health and every other thing that makes living meaningful.

This is certainly not a time to begrudge the developmental strides recorded in other climes, as the world has long equated the gains of human progress with the rising level of life expectancy in various societies.

This is why it may also serve little purpose to continue to push the argument of ‘how Europe underdeveloped Africa’ when most of the continent’s emerging leaders have shown poor vision and little capacity for harnessing Africa’s enormous human and material resources. The only consoling factor being the weather-beaten claim that Africa remains the cradle of civilization. But how true?

Back to the subject of life expectancy, therefore, it is important to take a shot at how Africa has fared over time, and why the seeming positive shift leaves little room to cheer.

This is what I found. Though Africa has, since 1925, seen a steady rise in its average life expectancy, climbing to about 60 years in 2015, having stayed at 26.4 years of age for over a century, the performance still leaves the continent at a comparatively lower rung of the ladder.

Indeed, while, by 2021, it was reported that the average life expectancy globally was 71 years for males and 75 years for females, Africa posted an average life expectancy of 63 years for males and 66 years for females. A further data query showed that life expectancy for the continent in 2020 was 63.24 years, a mere 0.46% increase from 2019.

Africa’s comparative tale in the healthcare system means more needs to done to close the gap between it and the rest of the mature economies. Perhaps, the marginal gains of the past few years may have been accounted for by the ‘Abuja Declaration’ of April 2001 during which African governments resolved to dedicate at least 15 per cent of their annual budgets to the health sector.

Nearly two decades later, a cursory search indicates that only about seven countries namely: Rwanda, Botswana, Niger, Zambia, Malawi, Burkina Faso and Togo, have met the Abuja target. Sadly, in 60 per cent of the continent, the World Health Organisation reports that health sector share of total government expenditure remains below 10 per cent.

For instance, Nigeria, adjudged as one of Africa’s biggest economies, failed to match its 2001 resolution when, in its 2021 annual budget, it allocated less than 10 per cent to the health sector. In fact, the budget for 2021 proposed N547 billion for healthcare, representing about seven per cent of the budget’s total of N13.08 trillion.

A simple arithmetic shows that the amount translates to about N2,735 per Nigerian, given the country’s population of about 200 million people.

That 60 per cent of African countries are unable to deliver, on a healthcare promise made about two decades ago, shows a clear lack of will on the part of most, and should leave no room for celebration of any sort.

The call to sobriety is informed by concerns that more Africans may slide into the danger zone if its political leaders continue to pay lip service to the health sector, even as the world rises to the scare posed by autism and malaria.

So, let us not be corralled into a premature dance party. Autism is a growing scourge and, just as the world had done in the last 15 years, April 2 was marked as the annual World Autism Awareness Day, with a theme, ‘Inclusive Quality Education For All.’

How is Africa positioning to tackle this troubling health disorder? In the wake of poor infrastructure, one can only hazard a guess or build scenarios. What is, however, clear is that many African children with autism are kept away from prying eyes —sometimes tied up, almost always undiagnosed and stigmatized. The situation is not helped by the fact that no cure exists for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Beyond the pervasive adhoc measures instituted by most governments across Africa, it is time to nudge corporates in the continent into action through well structured partnerships that would complement other global interventionist efforts.

The other health scare which gained global mentions in April is the malaria pandemic which effectively ravages 91 countries of the world. As World Malaria Day took front seat April 25, nations of the earth were reminded that every two minutes or so, a child dies of malaria. But no where is this more prevalent than Africa.

Indeed, UNICEF reports that of the 1-3 million deaths recorded each year, the overwhelming majority are in children aged 5 years or younger, and 80-90% of the deaths each year are in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

In terms of spread, the report also holds that four out of five malaria deaths occur in one of 15 countries: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Mozambique, Ghana, Angola, Uganda, Mali, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, Niger, Guinea and Chad.

Bringing the issue closer home, more than one in three malaria deaths reportedly occur in two countries: Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Africa’s health horizon, no doubt, looks cloudy even as the continent strikes marginal gains in the area of life expectancy. Buffeted by infrastructural challenges across many fronts, the biggest obstacle to rapid growth and development appears to be the lack of political will to sustain the gains of today.

The continent’s leadership must, therefore, thread with cautious optimism and resist the urge to roll out the drums in celebration of meager achievements when the larger pursuit should be to scale Africa’s capacity to leverage its enormous endowments and stay competitive against the rest of the globe.

Strictly Personal

If I were put in charge of a $15m African kitty, I’d first deworm children, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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One of my favourite stories on pan-African action (or in this case inaction), one I will never tire of repeating, comes from 2002, when the discredited Organisation of African Unity, was rebranded into an ambitious, new African Union (AU).

There were many big hitters in African statehouses then. Talking of those who have had the grace to step down or leave honourably after electoral or political defeat, or have departed, in Nigeria we had Olusegun Obasanjo, a force of nature. Cerebral and studious Thabo Mbeki was chief in South Africa. In Ethiopia, the brass-knuckled and searingly intellectual Meles Zenawi ruled the roost.

In Tanzania, there was the personable and thoughtful Ben Mkapa. In Botswana, there was Festus Mogae, a leader who had a way of bringing out the best in people. In Senegal, we had Abdoulaye Wade, fresh in office, and years before he went rogue.

And those are just a few.

This club of men (there were no women at the high table) brought forth the AU. At that time, there was a lot of frustration about the portrayal of Africa in international media, we decided we must “tell our own story” to the world. The AU, therefore, decided to boost the struggling Pan-African New Agency (Pana) network.

The members were asked to write cheques or pledges for it. There were millions of dollars offered by the South Africans and Nigerians of our continent. Then, as at every party, a disruptive guest made a play. Rwanda, then still roiled by the genocide against the Tutsi of 1994, offered the least money; a few tens of thousand dollars.

There were embarrassed looks all around. Some probably thought it should just have kept is mouth shut, and not made a fool of itself with its ka-money. Kigali sat unflustered. Maybe it knew something the rest didn’t.

The meeting ended, and everyone went their merry way. Pana sat and waited for the cheques to come. The big talkers didn’t walk the talk. Hardly any came, and in the sums that were pledged. Except one. The cheque from Rwanda came in the exact amount it was promised. The smallest pledge became Pana’s biggest payday.

The joke is that it was used to pay terminal benefits for Pana staff. They would have gone home empty-pocketed.

We revive this peculiarly African moment (many a deep-pocketed African will happily contribute $300 to your wedding but not 50 cents to build a school or set up a scholarship fund), to campaign for the creation of small and beautiful African things.

It was brought on by the announcement by South Korea that it had joined the African Summit bandwagon, and is shortly hosting a South Korea-Africa Summit — like the US, China, the UK, the European Union, Japan, India, Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey do.

Apart from the AU, whose summits are in danger of turning into dubious talk shops, outside of limited regional bloc events, there is no Pan-African platform that brings the continent’s leaders together.

The AU summits are not a solutions enterprise, partly because over 60 percent of its budget is funded by non-African development partners. You can’t seriously say you are going to set up a $500 million African climate crisis fund in the hope that some Europeans will put up the money.

It’s possible to reprise the Rwanda-Pana pledge episode; a convention of African leaders and important institutions on the continent for a “Small Initiatives, Big Impact Compact”. It would be a barebones summit. In the first one, leaders would come to kickstart it by investing seed money.

The rule would be that no country would be allowed to put up more than $100,000 — far, far less than it costs some presidents and their delegations to attend one day of an AU summit.

There would also be no pledges. Everyone would come with a certified cheque that cannot bounce, or hard cash in a bag. After all, some of our leaders are no strangers to travelling around with sacks from which they hand out cash like they were sweets.

If 54 states (we will exempt the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic for special circumstances) contribute $75,000 each, that is a good $4.05 million.

If just 200 of the bigger pan-African institutions such as the African Development Bank, Afrexim Bank, the giant companies such as MTN, Safaricom, East African Breweries, Nedbank, De Beers, Dangote, Orascom in Egypt, Attijariwafa Bank in Morocco, to name a few, each ponied up $75,000 each, that’s a cool $15 million just for the first year alone.

There will be a lot of imagination necessary to create magic out of it all, no doubt, but if I were asked to manage the project, I would immediately offer one small, beautiful thing to do.

After putting aside money for reasonable expenses to be paid at the end (a man has to eat) — which would be posted on a public website like all other expenditures — I would set out on a programme to get the most needy African children a dose of deworming tablets. Would do it all over for a couple of years.

Impact? Big. I read that people who received two to three additional years of childhood deworming experience an increase of 14 percent in consumption expenditure, 13 percent in hourly earnings, and nine percent in non-agricultural work hours.

At the next convention, I would report back, and possibly dazzle with the names, and photographs, of all the children who got the treatment. Other than the shopping opportunity, the US-Africa Summit would have nothing on that.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3

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Strictly Personal

AU shouldn’t look on as outsiders treat Africa like a widow’s house, By Joachim Buwembo

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There is no shortage of news from the UK, a major former colonial master in Africa, over whose former empire the sun reputedly never set. We hope and pray that besides watching the Premier League, the managers of our economies are also monitoring the re-nationalisation of British Railways (BR).

 

Three decades after BR was privatised in the early to mid-nineties — around the season when Africa was hit by the privatisation fashion — there is emerging consensus by both conservative and liberal parties that it is time the major public transport system reverts to state management.

 

Yes, there are major services that should be rendered by the state, and the public must not be abandoned to the vagaries of purely profit-motivated capitalism. It is not enough to only argue that government is not good at doing business, because some business is government business.

 

Since we copied many of our systems from the British — including wigs for judges — we may as well copy the humility to accept if certain fashions don’t work.

 

Another piece of news from the UK, besides football, was of this conservative MP Tim Loughton, who caused a stir by getting summarily deported from Djibouti and claiming the small African country was just doing China’s bidding because he recently rubbed Beijing the wrong way.

 

China has dismissed the accusation as baseless, and Africa still respects China for not meddling in its politics, even as it negotiates economic partnerships. China generously co-funded the construction of Djibouti’s super modern multipurpose port.

 

What can African leaders learn from the Loughton Djibouti kerfuffle? The race to think for and manage Africa by outsiders is still on and attracting new players.

 

While China has described the Loughton accusation as lies, it shows that the accusing (and presumably informed) Britons suspect other powerful countries to be on a quest to influence African thinking and actions.

 

And while the new bidders for Africa’s resources are on the increase including Russia, the US, Middle Eastern newly rich states, and India, even declining powers like France, which is losing ground in West Africa, could be looking for weaker states to gain a new foothold.

 

My Ugandan people describe such a situation as treating a community like “like a widow’s house,” because the poor, defenceless woman is susceptible to having her door kicked open by any local bully. Yes, these small and weak countries are not insignificant and offer fertile ground for the indirect re-colonisation of the continent.

 

Djibouti, for example, may be small —at only 23,000square kilometres, with a population of one million doing hardly any farming, thus relying on imports for most of its food — but it is so strategically located that the African Union should look at it as precious territory that must be protected from external political influences.

 

It commands the southern entrance into the Red Sea, thus linking Africa to the Middle East. So if several foreign powers have military bases in Djibouti, why shouldn’t the AU, with its growing “peace kitty,” now be worth some hundreds of millions of dollars?

 

At a bilateral level, Ethiopia and Djibouti are doing impressively well in developing infrastructure such as the railway link, a whole 750 kilometres of it electrified. The AU should be looking at more such projects linking up the whole continent to increase internal trade with the continental market, the fastest growing in the world.

 

And, while at it, the AU should be resolutely pushing out fossil-fuel-based transportation the way Ethiopia is doing, without even making much noise about it. Ethiopia can be quite resolute in conceiving and implementing projects, and surely the AU, being headquartered in Addis Ababa, should be taking a leaf rather than looking on as external interests treat the continent like a Ugandan widow’s house.

 

Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:buwembo@gmail.com

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