Editorial | Reflecting on Africa's good and bad | Rich Elfers

I recently flew over the whole length of the African continent from Libya on the Mediterranean to South Africa on the southern tip to visit my daughter and her family who are living there. As I looked down on the African landscape from 37,000 feet, I reflected on the land and recent history there.

As I flew over Tripoli, Libya, I recalled Libya’s recent past. Just a few short months ago this North African city was in a state of civil war to overthrow the 43-year dictatorship of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. I wondered if airline flights over Libya had been diverted during that time.

Thinking about this led me to consider what most Americans think and know about this enormous continent of Africa – a continent so large it takes more than nine hours to travel down its length by jet. This is far longer than a flight across the U.S. of about six hours, coast to coast.

To many Americans, Africa is seen as a continent rather than 54 diverse countries. They are mainly Arab in the north and black in the southern regions. It not one unified country.

During this long flight, I want to take you on a brief tour of the political issues that are playing out in several of the countries below me. We need to understand why America’s and the world’s attentions are shifting to it.

I think our attentions are shifting here partly as a result of the poverty and violence that has marked this region, but also at the realization of vast, untapped natural resources necessary for maintaining the lifestyles of the major economies of the world. China and the U.S. are both putting more emphasis on development of this continent.

It took my flight several hours to cross over the vast Sahara Desert. I thought back to my knowledge of the Roman Empire of millennia past to know that much of this area was once grasslands. Romans took the ferocious beasts (lions and leopards) from the Sahara for gladiatorial battles and other atrocities displayed before its citizens in the Coliseum.

Since that time desertification brought on by humans, droughts and goats, has wreaked its damage to expand the reach of the Sahara deeper and deeper into the heart of Africa. The Sahara is now nearly the size of the U.S.

As I thought of countries to the west of my flight path, I mused on the Tauregs, Qaddafi’s Malian mercenaries. These paid soldiers, upon Qaddafi’s demise, fled with their weapons to seize northern regions of their country of Mali, stirring up conflict there. I also considered the conflict that pits Christians against Muslims in oil-rich Nigeria.

To the east I pondered the recent popular revolt that is still taking place in Egypt, and the creation of the new nation of South Sudan. The hope behind the formation of this new nation was to end the decades-long civil war and ethnic cleansing between Arab Muslims in the north and Christian blacks in the south. Instead, tensions continue over control of oil that is now being shipped from landlocked South Sudan north through Sudan to the Indian Ocean and then to the China.

Continuing south, we crossed over the Democratic Republic of the Congo where 5.4 million people have died from famine, disease and war since 1998. Again, I was reminded of a common theme: the cause of much of the strife and death has been over that region’s immense mineral wealth.

To the east you may remember the small country of Rwanda where 500,000 Tutsis were massacred by rival Hutus in the genocide of 1994. My flight continued south over Mugabe’s Zimbabwe where that once-prosperous nation has been plundered due to a brutal and incompetent dictatorship.

Finally, I landed at the O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, where apartheid (legalized segregation of the races) ended in 1994. Most of the world rejoiced when Nelson Mandela became its first black president. Today, South Africa, while now a black-ruled democracy, is noted for its corruption, crime and AIDS epidemic, while at the same time being a rising economic power.

Flying over many of the diverse countries of Africa on my flight caused me to reflect on the changes taking place in this part of the world. The changes are causing to world to take more notice of Africa.

Why is the world taking more notice of Africa? It is partly out of compassion and hope for improving health and living conditions, but also because the developed world realizes that exploiting Africa’s mineral wealth means its continued prosperity. It is also one area of the world where differing cultures and religions meet. From the Arab Spring in North Africa to the New South Africa, the world is taking notice of this very important part of the world.

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