Ian Birrell: The other side of modern Africa

Democracy is making progress across Africa, from Botswana to Zambia.
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The Independent Online

The disintegration of Zimbabwe continues. The killing goes on in Congo and Darfur. And Aids continues to devastate the lives of millions. But still blinded by cliches about the “Dark Continent”, we are ignoring another side of modern Africa.

There are few places that demonstrate this better than Ghana. The former British colony has had its share of problems since 1957, when it became the first sub-Saharan country in Africa to win independence. It has endured coups and chaos, while its prosperous economy was wrecked first by socialist ideologues running the country, then by free-market fanatics in the international community.

Today, Ghana is a symbol of the emerging Africa. Ghanaians take immense pride in their democracy, restored in 1992 and safeguarded by a powerful Electoral Commission. The West African nation was yesterday choosing a new president after the two-term John Kufour stood down, in accordance with the law. If successful, it will be the fifth clean poll in a row. Still, people queued overnight to be first to cast their votes after a campaign in which many of the key issues were familiar to any Western |voter: crime, health care, jobs, out-of-touch politicians.

It is not just democracy that makes Ghana a flag-bearer for the continent. The economy is growing 6 per cent a year, with exports nearly tripling since the turn of the century. Its media, especially radio, is independent and vibrant. Mobile communications are proving transformative; indeed, during elections radio stations use volunteers with mobile phones to send in instant reports from polling stations, which helps to ensure that there is no malpractice.

But Ghana is far from unique. Democracy is making progress across Africa, from Botswana to Zambia. There have been successful elections recently in countries that endured terrible bloodshed and upheaval, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. There is economic growth across the continent, despite the protectionism of Europe and the United States and a global economic meltdown that will hit Africa hard. There is an emerging and increasingly vocal middle class, empowered by mobile phones. It was even revealed this weekend that the debilitating guinea-worm disease is on the brink of elimination, which would be only the second time in human history a disease has been wiped out.

This is the side of Africa we hear so little about. I have taken parties of Western musicians out to play with African artists in Bamako, Kinshasa and Lagos and one of the first things they always say is how different Africa is to their expectations. “I expected to see kids with distended bellies and begging bowls everywhere,” said one indie star.

Life is far from perfect, of course, But Africa is a continent of 53 nations. As in Europe, each has its own character, its own successes and its own difficulties. Yet in so many ways, those optimistic Ghanaians taking pride in their cherished democracy present a truer picture of the continent today than the brutal despot unleashing horrors upon his people in Zimbabwe.

The author is deputy editor of ‘The Independent’ and co-founder of Africa Express

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