A patchwork quilt of hope

Richard Synge

Things have much improved since African intellectuals made an appeal to the continent to “take ownership” of its destiny.

What a difference ten years can make. In the global economic stakes, Africa has shed the cloak of gloom and doom that hung over it in the early 2000s and replaced it with a patchwork quilt, one that is optimistic, bright and full of flamboyant colours. Even as words like “growth” and “opportunity” are now rarely heard in reference to the fortunes of Europe and the USA, they have become common currency in African capitals.

Two key factors that have helped to change the mood most significantly have been Africa’s telecommunications revolution and its China-inspired resource boom. But underlying both of these has been the acceptance across the continent that Africa must take charge of its own destiny and shed the dependency culture that characterised previous decades.

African intellectuals first began to demand a shift from the old ways at the beginning of the 2000s, when things still looked very dire indeed – a time when The Economist was dubbing Africa “the hopeless continent” and Tony Blair demeaning it as “a scar on the conscience of the world”. In defiance of this prevailing international perspective, a conference was held in 2001 in which luminaries such as Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo of Burkina Faso, Kwesi Botchwey of Ghana and Hage Geingob of Namibia spoke of Africa’s need to “take ownership” of its destiny and to reduce its reliance on foreign technical assistance. The same conference also heard an impassioned plea by Enock Kamuzora, a Tanzanian anti-corruption campaigner, who made the blunt and arresting claim that “kleptocratic regimes have left us in poverty,” and added: “Something must be done to save us from our leaders.”

Twelve years on, messages like these are now transmitted far and wide – especially by FM radio stations and the social media – and have become part of the everyday political discourse. New role models have emerged, as young entrepreneurs, entertainers and sporting heroes become instant celebrities.

There is also a much clearer general awareness of the continent’s true place in the world and a noting of the fact that outsiders are more willing to listen and learn from Africans, and less ready to patronise, than in years past. All these developments are relative of course. Had it not been for China’s enthusiastic engagement, the global financial crisis of 2008 might have brought the continent to its knees once more. With the global economy reeling, the Chinese influence was more than a little useful in helping to unlock the continent’s hidden business potential at a critical time.

China is now not only an expanding market for Africa’s resources; it is an important economic counterbalance to the continent’s longstanding dependence on Western economies.

Helped by China – and by the fortuitous discovery of oil and gas resources in countries like Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique- the phenomenon of positive economic growth across the continent has given Africa an almost magical allure, but the sustainability of this growth over the long term is still very far from being guaranteed. If Africa is to move to the next level, perhaps the answer is that suggested recently by Nigeria’s central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi: let China start to produce its goods on African soil, with African labour.

As the bitter experiences of Nigeria and Angola over the years have shown, the exploitation of natural resources does not of itself bring broad-based economic development. Highly focused economic strategies are vital in unlocking any nation’s potential so that a whole host of investments can be made in good infrastructure and services, and in broader agricultural and industrial development too.

For truly sustainable growth across Africa, a coordination of effort is needed. It is a challenge for Africa’s national governments and its regional and continental bodies alike. And in all countries, without exception, the big issues of governance – especially security, administration, taxation, justice, rights, freedoms and accountability – will need to be put on a surer footing. Although bright and alluring, Africa’s patchwork quilt still shows huge gaps. When countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and, now, Mali battle against disintegration, the ripples are felt further afield. And even in several of the supposedly more established democracies of the continent, the fundamental political tensions carry big risks.

In East, West and Southern Africa alike, the practice of democracy through regular elections is still far from producing the hoped-for benefits, and can indeed turn countries in on themselves. Too often – as in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Zimbabwe in recent years – political competition has overlapped and become confused with a more venal, and often ethnically fuelled, struggle for the control of resources.

In some places, it seems that the kleptocrats are still in charge. Widespread corruption has left the poorer sections of society feeling excluded, and without reasonable hope of decent schools, better health facilities or job opportunities.

The picture is definitely many shades brighter than when the continent was beset by Cold War conflict, the era of apartheid, brutal dictatorships and disastrous economic policies. The Internet and the mobile phone have brought a 21st century buzz to Africa’s shores, and Africans can only benefit from the increased connectivity these provide. But we should not get carried away. The patchwork quilt is still a work in progress and it will need many hands to bring it to perfection.


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