This cheerful report on Africa contrasted sharply with the Economist magazine’s morose front-page headline of May 13, 2000, ‘The Hopeless Continent.’
The Africa that is emerging is without doubt markedly different from that of the first decade after the end of the Cold War. The commodity boom of the past few years has created a new cycle of economic growth, with the continent growing at an average 5-6 percent over the past 10 years. Between the years 2000 and 2008, 316 million Africans have become cellphone users, opening up new opportunities for access to banking and related services. Africa is also home to 60 per cent of the world’s arable, uncultivated land, creating tremendous opportunities for Africa to deal with the challenge of food security and poverty. According to the McKinsey study, 128 million African households will have discretionary income by 2020, while 50 per cent of Africans will be living in cities by 2030. The new and emerging story about Africa is possible because there is less deadly conflict on the African continent compared to 10 years ago. The number of peacekeeping operations under the United Nations mandate, which is also a good barometer of violence and the potential thereof, has decreased markedly over the past 10 years. If in 2003, Africa constituted 70 per cent of UN peacekeeping operations, then its share of such operations now stands at around 40 per cent. It is the relative conditions of peace, which have created a new appetite for Africa, with key emerging powers pushing for infrastructure and resource deals on the continent.
Still, there are certain caveats to this optimistic story about the Africa that is emerging. Around 34 of the 50 least developed countries are in Africa. Slightly more than 27 per cent of the world’s poor are still in Africa. Democracy, which is a panacea to many of the continent’s woes, including corruption and bad governance, is struggling to grow substantive and organic roots in many African states. Mali, paraded in recent years as a beacon of democracy and stability under the now deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure, receded into violence with the northern part of the country, including the ancient city of Timbuktu, in control of the Tuaregs’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The country is potentially becoming the Afghanistan of Africa. Senegal, another stable country, held difficult elections earlier this year, with the whole process preceded by deadly violence. Somalia is still a failed state and is a source of instability for neighbouring states, including Kenya. Côte d’Ivoire’s potential is still undermined by sporadic ethnic violence with potentially devastating effects on the Mano River region. The two Sudans are on the verge of war.
Ongoing tensions between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the rebel movement M23 under the rogue general Bosco Ntanganda allegedly funded by Rwanda and Uganda, is threatening to tear the Great Lakes region apart, thus returning it to the black hole of the 1990s. In addition to these, the political stability of many African countries is anchored around liberation movements which have enjoyed uninterrupted rule for decades. In some instances, stability is the result of a flawed democracy around a leader in power for decades. Looking to the horizon, it begs the question as to how the political transitions in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Angola and Burkina Faso will shape up. These are countries where the leader or the ruling party has been in power for more than two decades and where power is mostly constructed around a person or the ruling party and not the democratic institutions of the state. These political risks also co-exist with ecological threats. As a result of economic growth, ecological risks are not sustainably managed due to the absence of technical capacity in African capitals, and political elites who are not socialised to environmental issues but only see the political and economic capital inherent in large-scale projects. Without the sustainable management of political processes and impending risks, Africa’s take-off might well turn out to be another mirage.
• Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.