Reflections on Africa

Karen Allen

As she moves on from her posting, the BBC's Southern Africa correspondent Karen Allen looks back on nearly 12 years of reporting from the continent.

Africa is not a country. It is a continent that feels like it has come of age. Despite the very real problems of poverty, corruption and the sense you sometimes get in some quarters, that no-one is held to account, business types hail Africa as the "final frontier". After nearly 12 years reporting this region, for me it feels like a place where one grows up.

I have met priests and politicians, warlords and entrepreneurs, gangsters and teachers. Ordinary mums and dads. Each of them has helped to shape my impressions and many have become firm friends.

One of the first lessons I learnt in Kenya was survival. There is no safety net here when times get tough.

In the early days on a visit to the slum known as Kibera, an elderly lady called me over as she stirred her supper in a thick, black, cast-iron pot. "Hey sister, where are you from?" she asked. "London," I replied. "Yes, but where in London?" I was rather puzzled as she pressed me further. "I know London," she nodded, sagely. "In fact, I know Paris and Berlin, too."

It emerged that this friendly stranger had once been a glamorous stewardess for an international airline. She had drunk the best champagne and visited the fanciest European hotels but when times got hard in the 1980s and the airline folded, she lost her job.

Image copyright ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption South Sudan became Africa's 54th state on 9 July 2011

She was now selling samosas in the slum to survive. From that day onwards I learnt never to make any assumptions about Africa: a jet-setter one day, a slum dweller the next. It is the drumbeat of so many who take the knocks, but reclaim their dignity and survive.

Yet, in absolute terms, people are getting poorer in Africa because the population continues to grow. During my time on this continent I witnessed a colleague of mine - away from the BBC - lose two of his three young children. That is never OK.

When I arrived in Africa more than a decade ago, Boko Haram in Nigeria did not exist, Somalia's al-Shabab insurgency group had yet to be formed - not to mention so-called Islamic State - and Sudan was one vast, sprawling country emerging from more than two decades of civil war.

I arrived to a continent of 53 states. I now leave behind 54. South Sudan's independence in 2011 marked the newest addition to the globe. The birth pains are still being felt.

When I arrived, George W Bush was beginning his second term as US president, oil and gas had yet to be discovered in many parts of Africa and mobile phones were just beginning to open up a world of possibilities from e-commerce to telemedicine.

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Image caption Mobile phones have transformed the lives of millions of Africans

Now, two US presidents later (give or take a week or two), China has become the second-biggest investor in Africa, with India hard on its heels. The brain-drain is beginning to slow down as African talent is being retained, especially in the technology sector.

And there is more money flowing back into Africa from remittances, than the entire aid budget for the continent.

With this growing economic confidence, powered by a rising middle class, has come a new political assertiveness. And, with growing insecurity, the West knows it needs Africa more than ever before.

You see it in the UN Security Council. South Africa has held its ground on issues such as Libya during the fall of Gaddafi. The African Union is pushing for permanent seats and a greater say in world affairs as the continent now contributes more troops to peacekeeping operations than anywhere else on earth.

You see this assertiveness in matters of international justice. Countries like South Africa and Burundi have turned their backs on the International Criminal Court.

And you see this push back on matters of wider society and the tussle between the old way of doing things and what some see as imported Western ideas.

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Image caption Gay rights remain a controversial subject in many parts of the continent

A rapidly growing young urban class, more connected with the world through mobile phones, is making new demands, touching on everything from gender equality to gay rights.

A young female couple I met in Kenya back in 2006 had been forced out of their business as florists because word had got out that they happened to be gay.

In Uganda, activists like David Kato would be murdered a few years later, for the simple fact that he was gay. Yet slowly, very slowly, there has been a perceptible shift. Constitutions are being shaken up.

But there is still a tangible sense of mistrust between many African nations. Principles of sovereignty and non-interference, just like in many other parts of the world, are jealously guarded.

And the settling of old scores between neighbouring continues to be played out in places such as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and its newer neighbour South Sudan.

In many places, the slow roll-out of infrastructure is blamed for underscoring this continued sense of separation and investors say corruption continues to frighten off potential investors.

Image caption Karen Allen reporting from an internally displaced persons' camp in Chad

Yet 2016 saw the creation of the first continent-wide trading bloc. At the moment only 10% of the continent's trade is conducted between African nations. But the potential is huge - 620 million consumers.

The political landscape is also being redrawn. Regrettably, I have been banned from working inside Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe's leadership persists. And, as I write, the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo and The Gambia are resisting pressure to stand down.

But transfers of power are happening more peacefully. We have seen it, for instance, in Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, and maybe also in Angola, where President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos has ruled supreme for the past 37 years but has indicated that he will not stand again for re-election.

I never really understood that institutions mattered until I moved to South Africa but, oh, how they do. The country's history may set it apart from other African states but South Africa's constitutional court, its free press and parliament have all challenged the legitimacy of President Jacob Zuma.

And no-one has been killed for speaking out. It is a template other nations are keen to follow and I predict that, for many, it will soon come.

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