There are many criteria by which to measure the success or failure of nations: per capita annual income, rates of literacy and infant mortality, opportunity for upward mobility, stability of political leadership and the soundness of essential institutions, to name but a few.
By those standards, a fair number of the 54 recognized African countries must be considered, if not outright failures, certainly grim disappointments — most of all for the people whose misfortune it is to endure the unending ordeal of privation and misrule.
Surely the most dramatic proof of this is the estimated toll of some 20,000 Africans who in the last 20 years have lost their lives while attempting — in unseaworthy boats or on primitive rafts — to navigate Atlantic coastal waters or cross the Mediterranean in the quest for safer and more productive lives.
The hope that persuades them to embark on that perilous journey is no different than the one that propels undocumented Mexicans to cross the southern U.S. border, or that persuaded our European forebears to leave their homelands, seeking freedom and a better future in this country.
Just in a single month this early autumn, more than 550 Africans have perished in boat sinkings off the Italian coast. With the onset of winter and harsher weather, that toll could markedly worsen. For anyone privileged to have known Africa in the continent’s early years of independence, the current situation is particularly heartbreaking.
In late 1963, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I was given a life-changing assignment — to travel the continent and report to readers on the situation in the newly self-governing republics. The editor’s instructions were amazingly open-ended.
“Go where you need to go,” he said. “Write what you think is sensible. Stay as long as you feel you need to stay. And come back when you get sick.”
In the changed newspaper economics of today, it’s hard to imagine a young reporter getting such an assignment on those terms.
Africa in that time was aflame with optimism. The old flags had been taken down and the new flags run up. The continent was rich in natural resources — oil, gold, diamonds. Freed from the constraints and the appetites of colonialism, the future seemed ripe to be grasped.
It’s true that in some places, thugs, thieves and wastrels had seized power, or soon would — Joseph Mobutu in the Congo, Idi Amin in Uganda, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi in Nigeria.
Still, there was reason to think that the crippling effects of misrule would somehow be overcome and that Africa’s promise might yet be realized. But with the flood of migrants now seeking, at risk of life, to flee the failure of their native countries, that hope appears to have been fatuous. And with the spreading threat of militant Islamic extremism across the northern tier of African states, the prospects have become even more bleak.
The European Union is pressing its member countries to liberalize their immigration policies in ways to humanely regulate the tide of desperate seekers. And Spain and Italy are patrolling by water and air the most likely migrant routes in the hope of lessening the frequency of tragedies at sea.
But the absorptive capacity and tolerance of Europeans are finite.
Only progress in their own countries, affording Africans hope and a reason to stay, can curb the tragic human tide.