NEW YORK CITY IN the United States during the last week missed the glamour, the excitement and the usual attraction that come with the annual September gatherings that bring diplomats, national political leaders and their retinue of aides to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This year’s UNGA meeting was different in many aspects. The sparse number of people within the UN conference hall at any session was both a tell-tale evidence of social, political and ideological distancing and the unprecedented emphasis on online speeches by many notable presidents and heads of national governments, including even Donald Trump that is just 214 miles (342.4 kilometres) air distance away, requiring a total of 41 minutes flight duration from Washington, DC to New York City. The scant population of people and the physical absence of many within the UN hall of meeting were more than compensated for by the various speakers who made their speeches in pre-recorded forms.
The individual speakers’ rhetorics were anything but reassuring for the world’s future. From the Trump’s lashing out at China for its culpability on Coronavirus, to the Turkish president’s contested maritime claims on the Mediterranean, to Iranian Hassan Rouhani’s caustic accusation of the US, described as kneeling on Iran’s neck, it was as cacophonous and dissonant as it was toxic. The gathering did very little to give an impression that it really prioritised communicable diseases, particularly as the Coronavirus pandemic has devastated the world economically, politically and socially. This is in sharp contrast to the UNGA week of 2018 in which non-communicable diseases took a centre stage during the High Level Meeting, for the third time. This time, it is doubtful if those heads of state and government that committed to 13 new steps to “tackle non-communicable diseases including cancers, heart and lung diseases, stroke, and diabetes, and to promote mental health and well-being” two years earlier even had the faintest idea they once did. Whether the World Health Organisation (WHO) that led that initiative remembered to tie the NCD story to the COVID-19 pandemic is also debatable.
The “Hurricane COVID-19” appeared to have swept many off their feet, such that their talk was mostly on vaccine and other palliatives, whereas the underlying causes of COVID-19-related mortalities seem to have escaped the attention of many in the health and policy space. The unequal powers of the various countries played out in the vaccine politics, where access is obviously lopsided. Africa’s predicament thus becomes obvious, particularly as the continent still reels from natural and environmental challenges. Some countries in Africa have had one disaster too many. Kenya and Uganda’s locust invasion of croplands was as disastrous for food security as the deluge that followed few rains. In Kenya, where over 1,000 families were reportedly displaced by Lake Turkana floods, and in Nakuru County where dozens were killed after the dam break, the plights of the victims are no less vital. Weeks after Kenya, the Sahelian floods began to devastate Sudan, Niger and Senegal, killing hundreds, displacing thousands and destroying livelihoods worth millions of dollars – essentially from inundated farms and wasted crops.
It’s a bad time for many international humanitarian service providers as they have been shaken beyond measure by COVID-19 and their rescue or recovery efforts have been hampered by “donor fatigue.” While the African Union (AU) still struggled to come to terms with these deluge-induced devastations in Sudan that was disproportionately hit, Qatar – a Middle East country – has dispatched food aid to help Sudan ameliorate the suffering. Egypt, a North African country, has been at loggerheads with Ethiopia over the former’s apprehension about the latter’s Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD). Same Egyptian government that meddles by taking sides and supporting the renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar in the political instability of Libya began to face growing protests from the countrymen since the beginning of last week. The Douala uprising in Cameroon did not seem to be attracting the attention and sympathy of those who matter either, as the sit-tight President came under fire. Nor did Mali’s coup d’etat take a centre stage, as the ECOWAS delegates could not summon the courage to tell Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, a Malian politician who served as the president of Mali from September 2013 to August 2020, that it was time to go. They downplayed the importance of the street protests and were still pontificating over the people’s discontent when the military struck, deposing Keita.
Mali’s case is particularly interesting as ECOWAS lead negotiator, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, former president of Nigeria, is expected to return to Mali in a few days’ time, while multilateral organisations continue piling pressure on Mali and pushing it towards a speedy return to civilian rule and a retreat of the military. One step towards that direction has been taken in the form of installation of a retired army officer as an interim president while promising an 18-month transition period back to civilian rule. But the same multilateral organisations were quiet and looked the other way during Keita’s misrule that was insensitive to the disparate plights of Malians, paving way for the military takeover. The point about the presence of France, still teleguiding Mali, remains a misnomer, as ECOWAS still remains at a crossroads between Francophone countries’ allegiance to France or to ECOWAS. A huge credibility gap exists that ECOWAS needs to fill. For instance, Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara and Guinea’s Alpha Condé, two current presidents standing for elections beyond the constitutionally approved term limits have chosen to tamper with the constitutions of their respective countries, creating more elasticity to allow them run for third terms despite protests and pushback from their respective countrymen. The moral high ground for them to checkmate other countries’ leaders from over-reaching their constitutional bounds is non-existent.
Although Tanzania’s John Magufuli recently announced his rejection of third term bid, there were concerns and suspicions earlier on about his political ambition and body language that earlier seemed to suggest or confirm such fears. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s iconic leader and ‘benevolent’ dictator, has no plan to abdicate power soon after ruling the country for 20 years since 2000. He could potentially remain in power till 2034. There is a temptation that his credentials as president will sway many other African leaders who may turn him into a reference point and an exemplar to emulate in the act of despotism. These are difficult times for Africa. They are also times of immense opportunities. Now, more than ever before, the continent needs more of vibrant, strong and functional institutions than strong leaders who become a personification of the state as epitomised by Louis XIV – known as Louis the Great – who reportedly once said “l’état, c’est moi,” meaning “I am the state.”
Africa has been particularly fortunate in the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike in Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America, cases recorded in Africa have been infinitesimally low. Distressing figures emanating from some European countries such as Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany and France have been in the public domain for a while. Of the 669,000 confirmed cases of infections in South Africa, a country of 59.5 million, 16,312 deaths have been recorded. By contrast, Singapore with 32 million people recorded 57,665 total cases. Death toll recorded in Mexico having 126 million people has risen up to 75,000 whereas Nigeria, estimated at 200 million people, has yet to go beyond 58,062 reported cases, and 1,103 deaths. With the neglect of Africa by Africans and by the wider world, the extent of infections and deaths that would have arisen under COVID 19 in Africa would have been enormous if it has taken the forms recorded in India, Europe or the US. This is not a reason for complacency as the end of the pandemic has not yet come. As the world goes through the slow recovery stage, the luck on the side of Africa this time should not be over-stretched. Rather, leaders from within and outside the continent need to study and understand why the Sub-Saharan Africa (apart from South Africa) has recorded comparatively low COVID 19 infections. Findings from such studies can help enrich the world’s knowledge in the quest for ways and means to limit the spread of COVID 19 in particular and any other disease that could have pandemic potential. If, in spite of the limited precautionary measures, the spread of COVID 19 remains low in most of Africa, then there is something we have to learn about the behaviour of the disease in Africa. The understanding so gained could help us get better insights into disease modelling in other forms of epidemic. But, for now, Africa should not rest on its luck. Efforts should be made to fortify the continent now that the world of global aviation is opening up again. A stitch in time will save more than just nine.