Africa in focus of the Church and the world

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Fr Giulio Albanese, an Italian Comboni missionary and journalist, about the Dark Continent.

WLODZIMIERZ REDZIOCH: – Why did the Church and world powers focus on Africa in 2009?

Fr GIULIO ALBANESE: – The victory of Barack Hussein Obama in the race to the White House will be marked as rehabilitation of the Afro-American pride. This is a realisation of the dream that refer to the words (I have a dream…) of Martin Luther King, the Baptist pastor, the winner of the Peace Nobel Prize, murdered in 1968 because he demanded equality between the white and the black American citizens. The hope people place in the new president is big most of all in Africa since Obama has the blood of the Luo tribe – a group living on the Kenyan bank of the Victoria Lake, because his father belonged to this tribe. However, the American President is a person of mixed race – he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in a relationship between American woman Ann Dunham and Kenyan Barack Hussein Obama – that’s why his election in a way abolishes racial prejudices, which were the barriers in the relationships between the North and the South for centuries. This explains why it was Africa that celebrated most the election of Obama (I saw it in Ethiopia and Kenya). From the Church’s perspective the year 2009 is truly a year of Africa – at first, Benedict XVI visited Cameroon and Angola and now in the Vatican there is the Synod of Bishops, discussing the problems of Africa. For Benedict XVI it was his first apostolic visit to this continent, which allowed him to get to know the African reality better. The previous visit of the Pope to Africa took place almost 15 years ago (in 1995 John Paul II visited Cameroon, South Africa and Kenya). So the world is interested in Africa although the news in the media about Africa needs to be often changed – it many a time tries to trivialize arguments concerning this continent. It is worth adding that the financial crisis, which afflicted the West, has special consequences in Africa – it is its biggest victim: the prices of natural resources have decreased; there has been a rapid decrease of foreign investments and help for the cause of Africa’s development (in Africa some countries calculate the international help as 30 % of their budgets). Because of that Africa has begun taking loans again.

– Why did President Obama not choose to visit his father’s country Kenya, which was once recognised as an example of democracy and good management, but he chose Ghana?

– Today, looking from the perspective of good management Ghana is undoubtedly the most developed country. Democracy was strengthened there during the presidency of John Kufuor. Besides, Ghana is an ally of the United States. Although one must explain that the speech delivered in the Parliament there was directed to the whole continent. Obama wants to give a new impulse to the American policy in Africa after years of America’s absence during the presidency of Bush.

– You say about America’s absence in Africa during the previous presidency but Bush travelled to Africa a lot…

– It is true that Bush made several visits to Africa and he promised help but he did not succeed to stop the expansion of the Chinese. One can even say that Africa became yellow during his term.

– Let us return to Obama. The new American President spoke about his relationships with Africa in a somewhat pathetic way (‘there is African blood in my veins’) but what will this ‘African’ President of the United States actually be able to do for Africa?

– Putting aside the rhetoric I think that Obama will continue the politics of Bill Clinton, the president who was interested in Africa as no other American president. Obama opts for the plan of bilateral co-operation with African countries, known as AGOA, which Clinton launched; he confirmed Clinton’s principle: ‘Trade, not aid’ and wants, for geopolitical reasons, to regain the leadership of the United States in Africa (let us not forget that this continent is a big mine, which additionally ‘flows’ on oil). Therefore, I think that for the time being Obama cannot be recognised as a benefactor of Africa as sometimes people think. He is rather its partner.

– We stressed special relationships – through blood – between Obama and Africa. That’s why this president could talk to Africans sincerely and without diplomatic euphemisms (none of his predecessors dared to criticise openly the governing elites in Africa). Therefore, not hiding the problems connected with the heritage of colonialism, the president reminded the Africans that ‘the West is not responsible for the destruction of the economy of Zimbabwe, for the drama of children-soldiers, for overwhelming corruption.’ These strong words reflect well the situation on the Dark Continent. Obama makes a challenge to this Africa, governed by the untouchable caste of old leaders (for example, Mugabe has been the absolute ruler of Zimbabwe for almost 30 years): Create new governments that will ensure social and economic growth for African people. This is almost a challenge to African revolution…

– I do not like when these problems are ideologically instrumentalised. Obama ‘pulled the ears’ of the old African rulers and he was right since big responsibility for the present situation is laid on them. But he was not completely objective because he should have also condemned the sins of the West. The term ‘the West’ is not actually valid since he should have considered the big Asian countries. I would rather speak about the responsibility of the big powers. As far as corruption is concerned one should remember the fact that this phenomenon assumes the existence of two subjects: the one that takes money and the one that gives money. If the statistics of the most corrupted countries considered the ones that took money and the ones that offered money they would look quite differently. The top places of such statistics would be occupied by the countries regarded as very democratic. We should reject the Manichean evaluation of the situation in Africa (on the one hand we have evil and on the other hand we had good) because both parties are responsible for the tragedy of Africa. One should not be an uncritical advocate of the Third World and reactionists – one must be realistic. The teaching of Benedict XVI (and John Paul II) is an example of a truly realistic approach to African problems.

– How do you interpret Obama’s appeal for new governments?

– If Africa has governments showing wisdom, justice and solidarity its citizens’ societies (first of all the Church) must be mobilised and they should aim at changing the approach to many problems marked by liberalism without limits and ideological prejudices. Besides, it is hard to speak about new governments when Africa is still full of paid soldiers. I have met many of them while travelling around…

– What are the mercenary soldiers?

– They are employed by concerns that explore mineral resources. Let us not forget that in the globalised world of international concerns the governments, also those in the West; act under the dictatorship of economy. Politics serves economy. Therefore, one should confirm the primacy of politics over economy, over business. John Paul II spoke about that and Benedict XVI repeats this (this is the message of his latest encyclical). Politicians often deliver wonderful speeches but actually big businessmen, big international concerns make decisions. I am strongly attached to one of the last documents of John Paul II – the compedium of the social doctrine of the Church. This document speaks about the priority of the person, about politics that is to serve ‘res publica’ – common good.

– Speaking about Africa one cannot omit the argument of the NGO, non-governmental organisations that are active in this continent. In her latest book ‘We Did Nothing’ Linda Polman openly criticises these organisations because she thinks that their activities are often too expensive and they suit fine the regimes in many Third World countries. Do you agree with this criticism?

– First of all, one must differentiate between the big UN agencies (FAO – Food and Agriculture Organisation, UNICEF - the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) from the true NGO. I personally think that we should reform the UN agencies, which should be smaller and less beaurocracised. Unfortunately, the principle of representativeness is binding, which means that posts are given only to people who represent big countries and not because they are competent (to tell you the truth, sometimes these people are not prepared to do the work). That’s why the fruit of their activities is decisively negative. As far as NGO is concerned for me the very name ‘non-governmental’ sounds bad as if these organisations wanted to stress their independence at any cost. However, they are often supported by governments or the EU funds. But I would like to remind you that various NGOs were once organisations that had deep roots in the society and received money directly from people: individuals, trade unions and parishes. There were wonderful fruits of citizen’s society. Today they are too much institutionalised or have become ordinary companies (although one cannot generalise).

– Indro Montanelli, one of the most outstanding Italian journalists, and additionally a non-believer, used to say that if he had been to give money to help people in the Third World, he would have given it to missionaries. Can missionaries use the funds in a better way?

– Certainly, they can although we, missionaries, should look critically at our activities as well. For example, our caring style of action is a problem. We can collect funds from motivated benefactors but then we invest in projects without paying attention to their self-reliance.

– Could you give some concrete example?

– I will explain what it means. Look at the health service. We have built many big hospitals in Africa, without thinking how to run them in the future, i.e. when there will be no money from our benefactors. Whereas the Protestants usually build small health centres, buy the land around them, buy buses, etc. Thus they can support their centres having the income from the farms or the buses, so their centres are self-sufficient. Another aspect of the problem is educating people to be responsible for themselves. Helping the Africans we should not contribute to create a class of beggars who count on our help and do not want to assume responsibility for themselves.

– How are the problems of Africa seen by Benedict XVI in his encyclical ‘Caritas in veritate’?

– I would say that the encyclical is a right word at the right moment, i.e. the time of the big crisis. In fact, the Pope makes us understand one fundamental thing: the process of globalisation, especially the economic globalisation, should be evangelised. The Pope says that one should confirm the priority of politics over economy, the priority of ethics and man (recently masses of people have been sacrificed on the altar of human egoism). It is true that the responsibility for Africa’s problems falls on many people but those who decide about the fate of the world should reflect why the present economic system creates an increasingly bigger division between the poor and the rich. One cannot tolerate the fact that in Nigeria, which has rich oil resources, 75% of its richness is in the hands of 1 % of its population (this is the result of the politics of the ruling class but first of all the result of the activities of foreign oil concerns that impose the rules). Similarly, in Kenya 1 % of the population possesses as much as 80% of the national welfare. The system that leads to such situations is unjust!

– To protect their banks against bankruptcy the rich countries assigned the gigantic sum of 14,800 billion dollars. During the G20 summit the world powers decided to assign 20 billion dollars to ensure ‘food security’ on the Dark Continent within three years. One can understand that one should have done anything possible not to allow a crisis of the world economy but comparing these thousands of billions the sum assigned for Africa is very small…

– It was decided to give crumbs to Africa – this is shameful. I want to give some data. According to the World Database Indicators the GPD of all African countries was 761 billion US dollars in 2007 whereas the GPD of only one country Italy was almost 2,000 billion in the same year. That’s why it is shocking that only 20 billion was found for food help for Africa. It is even more alarming that one does not see the gap between rich and poor countries as a global problem, which does not concern only African population. Why do those who studied economy at great universities, e.g. Bocconi or London School of Economics not realise that this gap is the cause of the dramatic migration process (no restrictions can stop it)? But the global recession has destroyed what has been done to relieve the sufferings of people in many African countries (new areas of poverty have appeared in developed countries, too). This increase in poverty will have also negative influence on the economy of the industrialised countries since it will contribute to an increasingly bigger unemployment (who is going to buy goods when the number of destitute people is alarmingly increasing?).

– For years people have discussed the consequences of European colonialism of the past centuries. Today, a new coloniser – China – has appeared (you have already mentioned that Africa becomes yellow). For the dynamically developing world power Africa is a source of natural resources and oil (ca. 25% of the oil imported by China comes from Africa) and at the same time it is a big sales market. Besides, the Chinese make business with all countries, including the non-democratic ones and those governed by dictators (suffice to mention their shameful role in Sudan). The Chinese investments on this continent amount to billions of dollars. What’s more, in Africa we have to do with a real invasion of the Chinese (it is estimated that in various African countries there are ca. 750,000). What are the political, economic and social consequences of the Chinese neo-colonialism in Black Africa?

– This is a big problem, which is more and more urgent. Thanks to the social pressure the West at least had to consider human rights in its relationships with Africa. The Chinese are interested only in business. It is them that contribute to an increase in corruption, bribing people who have power. In a way they behave like the Spanish after they conquered America. They gave tinsel to the Indians and received gold and other riches instead. I am deeply troubled since the Chinese have done what seemed absurd, i.e. balanced two extremes: the communist dictatorship and ruthless economic liberalism. It is a new form of colonialism.

– Is there any chance to stop the expansion of this red colonialism in Africa (and not only there because it is an international phenomenon)?

– It would be done if fair trade rules were introduced. A lot will depend on the future negotiations of the World Trade Organisation in Doha. If it did not establish new rules all things would function like today, i.e. big fish will eat small fish.

– We criticise China but the Chinese act in Africa without the yoke of colonialism, which the European countries bear. Besides, this communist dictatorship presents itself as a benefactor of the Dark Continent. They invest, build roads and bring welfare…

– The problem is that only the ruling classes and the local nomenclature benefit from the activities of the Chinese in Africa. The Chinese use the local labour force to a minimal extent and the quality of the Chinese goods is very poor but despite of that they drive out the African goods (even the typical African souvenirs are made in China). That’s why the Africans feel big resentment towards the Chinese.

– Can you see concrete ways to help Africa in this difficult situation?

– One should help Africa make radical changes. Some theoreticians of balanced development propose to create a two-way economy: economy governed socially and protected against market speculations that would ensure fundamental needs of mankind and private economy that would be market-oriented and would meet other needs. It may seem to be some utopia but we must urgently find some alternative for Africa before it is not too late. To live in peace one must ensure fair life but one should not live well at the cost of the poorest! The Africans demand justice from us and not the crumps from the tables of the rich epulons of the third millennium.

"Niedziela" 43/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: