The effervescence of life in Africa

Twenty minutes later, Jacob and Emmanuel were sitting at the bar of the newly opened Hyatt. With a beer in his hand, Emmanuel asked, ‘What do you think of Afronia?’

‘Complex . . . is the simple answer, if that’s not an oxymoron.’

Emmanuel laughed, ‘How so?’

‘On the one hand you have strict immigration controls and a very heavy police presence. At the same time, there are old men with only a nightstick to protect ATMs, shopping malls and hotels.’

‘That’s true.’

‘Afronia seems to be very religious and there are good relations between religions. At the same time, there are a great number of massage parlours and prostitutes.’

‘We come from many different backgrounds, whether that be ethnic clans, religions or regions. In our twenty-four-year-old republic there’s never been any inter-religious problems like with some of our neighbouring countries. Muslims and Christians freely participate in each other’s festivals and intermarry.’

‘Intermarry, really?’

‘Sure, my cousin, Abdullah, who is a Muslim married a Christian. As for prostitutes, you’re correct there are a lot, but they are outcasts from society.’

‘Really, or is that just from an urban, wealthy viewpoint? There must surely be demand if there is so much supply? I was reading, there’s tacit acceptance of prostitution as a way to earn money by poor rural families and which is where the majority of the girls come from.’

‘You may have a point on that one,’ Emmanuel conceded and then paused. ’Jacob, if you really want to understand Afronia, you have to know the history of the country.’

‘Of course, context is everything.’

‘So, in case you don’t know, let me start from the beginning. The Federal Democratic Republic of Afronia was conceived by the four constituent member regions in 1967. These four regions were part of four different neighbouring countries which had been demarcated after the Second World War with little to no consideration of ethnic, religious, geographic or economic orientation, much as the Middle East had been carved up by the Sykes Picot Declaration after the First World War. In 1985, Altimus Solomon, the leader of the Somalitrean People’s Democratic Movement, started to implement his vision of a Federal Republic based on the four regions having complimentary economic drivers, namely: the Wahilis in the Northern Region are forest workers; the Southis to the West are miners — ’

‘Of what?’

‘The usual, diamonds, gold and precious stones. Hararis in the Southern Region live a nomadic life as livestock farmers and, the Somalitreans in the Eastern Region engage in mechanised farming, have a growing service sector in Umoja City and have the only sea port and international airport.’

‘Which region are you from?’

‘I’m a Somalitrean.’

Maybe I could have guessed that, after all, it seems only they have any power and influence. ‘When did the Independence Wars start?’

‘Between 1985 and 1990 the Somalitrean People’s Democratic Movement formed an alliance with the Harari One Nation, the Southi Democratic Unionists and the Wahili Nationalists and together they established the Afronian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The APRDF formed a provisional government in 1990, and the dream of The Federal Democratic Republic of Afronia becoming a nation state came into being on the 2nd of August 1992, when Altimus Solomon as the FDRA’s representative received member status at both the African Union and United Nations.’

Looking at Emmanuel, Jacob could sense pride at how the country had been born.

‘After achieving nationhood, legal systems, government ministries and a judiciary were relatively quickly established; the first general election was in 1993. The APRDF won seventy-six percent of the vote and ninety-two percent of parliamentary seats; Altimus Solomon became our first President — ’

‘And he is still in power,’ Jacob pointed out.

‘He has been democratically elected each time,’ Emmanuel, said defensively.

‘But the constitution only allows for two terms . . .’ Jacob queried, knowing, I’m potentially entering shaky ground with such direct questions; I don’t want to overstep the boundary.

‘This is why knowing the history of the country is so important to understand what you see today. Firstly, Afronia underwent a series of famines in the late 1990s that particularly affected the Hararis, and in 1999 there was a war between Afronia and our northern neighbour, Taberia, which lasted until August 2001. In 2003, the constitution was changed and a third election was held, President Altimus Solomon was re-elected on the promise of delivering a development orientated government; in 2006 he became Life President.’

‘Was this the first signs of public dissent? I read, what hitherto had been disgruntled mutterings turned into heated debate.’

‘It’s true, there were some challenges around that time,’ Emmanuel conceded as he finished his beer and ordered another round. ‘In 2009, the government inaugurated four Regional Administrators in an effort to disburse power, just as the opposition had proposed.’

‘And they can raise a militia?’

‘Yes, but the current political tensions started in 2010 when the Southi Democratic Unionists unconstitutionally called for an independence referendum; that brings us up to today.’

What is he not telling me? What about the Somalitreans under the stewardship of President Solomon consolidating power and plundering the natural resources of the other regions for their own benefit? He seems to have conveniently left that out!

‘And so, is Afronia moving from poverty to prosperity?’

‘We’re getting there day-by-day.’

Jacob was not sure how to phrase his next question. ‘From what I’ve seen . . . there’s a small elite,’ he paused then quickly added, ‘as indeed there is in every country. But in Afronia it’s a very small elite, maybe zero-point-one percent, if you could put a figure on it. From what I’ve read . . . the elite are almost all Somalitrean party members. Admittedly, there is a growing middle and working class, but the gap is vast and almost impossible to breach. The elite and even the middle class is restricted predominantly to Umoja and in totality represents less than five-percent of the population. There are fifteen-percent who are urban poor; the other eighty-percent are very rural and very poor.’

Emmanuel was initially taken aback by such an analysis, though he liked Jacob’s bluntness, It’s refreshing. ‘The urban middle class probably accounts for closer to seven-percent. There is an elite and the majority are poor as you rightly say. But aren’t these percentages typical of many least developed countries?’

‘I suppose so,’ Jacob agreed to Emmanuel’s estimations, before he continued without missing a beat, ‘but where did the sudden wealth of the elite come from? Afronia has only been a nation state for a little over twenty years and even then — right from the start — was recovering from war.’

This question was a little close to the bone for Emmanuel’s liking. It was pure good fortune that his parents were well respected during and after the independence movements and which is what had enabled him to land on his feet in the business world at a relatively young age. ‘That’s a good question,’ Emmanuel answered, doing his best not to show any discomfort in his reply. ‘Foreign Direct Investment only accounts for about five-percent of financial inflows and, as you know, there’s no opportunity for foreign majority ownership in any company. From surmising with friends, some of whom are economists, because Afronia is a new country we get a lot of donor support from the West which is worried we might become a failed state and be the next Afghanistan or Chad, a hotbed of extremism. There are naturally many projects with head offices in Umoja. This creates jobs, salaries, allowances and increased disposable income that then filters down to all levels of society. You’re correct that this creates a micro-economic bubble far removed from the economic reality of the rest of the country. What else?’ Emmanuel asked, enjoying the conversation.

‘Well, if you don’t mind me pointing out, you’re Muslim and so are many of your friends, but you are also big drinkers.’

‘Firstly,’ Emmanuel smiled as he’d answered this particular question many times before, ‘as I said earlier, Afronia is a religiously tolerant country and everyone can practice as they wish. Indeed, liberal religion is one of the main reasons why there’s strict immigration controls, the government doesn’t want religious fanatics entering.’

‘Really?’ Jacob, nodding his head to indicate that he was satisfied with the answer, ‘that’s very interesting.’ He took a few seconds to decide how he should phrase his next question. ‘Another contradiction is that you have new highways, but very old vehicles; there’s a complete lack of high-end cars here. In Tanzania, I saw plenty of Ferraris and Bentleys, I assumed the Afronian elite would also drive such vehicles.’

‘That one I do have an answer, or rather two. Firstly, the economy is growing quickly and so the government is planning and building infrastructure now for an eighty percent expansion in Umoja’s population over the next fifteen years. To answer your second question, there’s a 200-percent tax on all imported goods as the government wants disposable income to be spent on the local economy rather than imported products. I agree with this economic policy, even if it makes some goods very expensive.’

‘I suppose that does make sense, but why high tax for goods where there’s no local manufacturer? Surely this just makes things hard for the ordinary person to acquire? It makes aspiration for a better life a challenge and limits it to the preserve of the elite.’

‘I don’t have answers for everything,’ Emmanuel smiled before taking a long gulp of his beer, ‘though I would suggest, it’s the same rationale as for the cars.’

Jacob racked his brains for other Afronian inconsistencies. ‘There are many beggars and homeless people in Umoja who sleep underneath these new flyovers or at the side of a ten-floor building, so my next question, is . . . with all these contradictions, do you think the Afronian economic, social and political status quo is sustainable?’

‘How do you mean?’ Emmanuel, shocked at such a question in a public place. There are no doubt secret police or their informants, here!

‘Well, the rich are getting richer, but the poor majority are being left behind; there’s a very noticeable socio-economic gap. With a growing population and increasing exposure through social media as to how the other half, or rather one percent, live, won’t this eventually cause serious internal tensions when put into Afronia’s political context?’

Emmanuel pondered the question, but before he could do answer-back, Jacob added, ‘Consider the terrorist bombing in the nightclub district last month. If the Southi Republican Army are brave enough to start bombing the capital, has a tipping point been reached?’

‘Trust me, it wasn’t a bombing . . . it was a fire at warehouse that stored fireworks,’ Emmanuel informed him.

‘Fireworks?’ Jacob repeated, ‘but the papers said . . .’

‘The papers said . . .’ Emmanuel left the sentence hanging.

Jacob took a long gulp of his beer while he tried to comprehend the ramifications of what he’d just heard. I was there and saw the building shake. Did the government falsify reports of a bombing to further stoke regional tensions? If yes, what is their long-term play? Jacob didn’t have answers to his question and wasn’t sure how to broach the subject with Emmanuel. One thing though that was now abundantly clear, My boss has access to the highest corridors of power.

‘Aside from the fireworks,’ Emmanuel interrupted Jacob’s thoughts, ‘is Afronian politics really any different than between the Republicans and Democrats in the USA, or Labour and Conservatives in the UK?’

Jacob didn’t understand Emmanuel’s question, so Emmanuel continued. ‘In developed and developing countries alike, the poorest half of the population often controls less than ten-percent of its wealth. This is just one of the universal challenges for the 21st century that every country must grapple with and adapt policies accordingly. The growing wealth gap, persistent jobless growth, aging populations and climate change all have to be addressed. All four challenges will have considerable existential impact on the economy, politics, culture and society and, if not addressed, will lead to intensifying nationalism, regional disunity, mass migration and potentially, global conflict.’

Jacob took time to consider what Emmanuel had disclosed. ‘And this is why you think there’s need for strong leadership in Afronia . . . rather than democracy?’ he provocatively questioned. ‘At least in the UK and USA and, despite their many faults, there’s freedom of opportunity, freedom of speech and a functioning democracy. Is there such a thing as the Afronian Dream?’

Emmanuel pondered his response. ‘You might well be right, Jacob, but it’s better you meet my cousin Stella who works in private equity and who, by the way, AfroDrinks has written an investment proposal to which I would like you to look over next week. I’m sure the two of you would have a great chat over a glass of wine; I know she’s always looking for a dinner date as her husband is currently in Chad with the African Union peacekeeping forces.’

‘Sounds good,’ Jacob replied neutrally, even though his mind was doing cartwheels. Did I just hear that right? Surely this must be the same Stella who’s been sexting me? What am I getting myself into and, why, oh why, does my life always have to be so complicated? If it wasn’t bad enough that she’s married with kids, I now find out she’s also Emmanuel’s cousin. HELP!

‘Let me call her,’ Emmanuel said, breaking Jacob’s reverie as he took out his phone, ‘she might even be around for a drink tonight. We can meet her at Bar Two-Three-One.’

‘Sure.’ However, Jacob was thinking how to distract Emmanuel from phoning his cousin. ‘But coming back to Afronia, or more pertinently Tanzania which has also had rapid economic growth in the last ten years and whose economy is similarly predicted to mushroom with the expanding oil and natural gas sectors . . .’ Jacob paused to think through the logic of his argument. ‘Tanzania’s civil service has notorious challenges on controlling rampant corruption, so the expected increase in financial inflows will only exacerbate this. Rather than be a once-in-a-lifetime windfall, oil and gas has the potential to split the country apart. The majority will get restless if they see the elite living a fast life while they are left further and further economically behind. Just think of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s resource curse and the resulting civil war. In Tanzania, with an increasingly militant separatist movement in Zanzibar and which in some regards is similar to Afronia’s Southiland, there are all the ingredients for the perfect storm.’

‘You really see the same happening here?’ Emmanuel asked, genuinely interested in Jacob’s analysis.

‘There are many similarities: a fast-growing economy, a widening wealth gap, corrupt politicians — or so I hear, and independence movements in the regions. This is in the context of a strong internal security apparatus and a limited functioning democracy. Increasingly, people are aware of the differences between the haves and the have nots and with the increasing adoption of mobile phones and access to the internet, there are more and more channels to discuss the above.’

‘Do you really think there will be a Sub-Saharan African Winter similar to the Arab Spring?’

‘I hope not, I really do . . . but I wouldn’t rule it out.’

Some more stories from Afronia

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Chris Statham

Chris Statham

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Entrepreneur, student, pie eater, father, novelist, traveler, poet wannabe, pub visitor, husband, rugby enthusiast and part-time wizard.