Continental shift

Peter Guest

In just a decade, the dialogue has changed – Africa is now viewed through a new prism and has found a new, confident voice. The rest of the world is waking up to its potential as an economic partner.

The change in how Africa as a continent is viewed around the world, from basket case to economic opportunity, has been one of the great turnarounds of the last decade. It is a shift in perception that has spawned its own clichés – ‘Africa rising’ being the most prevalent – and the numbers are repeated so often that they have almost lost their meaning. Six of the fastest growing economies in the world in the past ten years were in Africa; 300 million people now form its middle class; two billion people by 2050. The world has been appraised of Africa’s potential.

In August, the then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched her six nation Africa tour in Dakar with a speech that exhorted American businesses to follow their global counterparts to Africa, saying: “If you want to make a good investment in the midst of what is still a very difficult global economy, go to Africa.” Clinton’s trip – in which she talked up the Obama administration’s message of partnership over patronage and made veiled references to China’s more direct approach to investing in the continent – was a major attempt to recast the relationship between Washington DC and African countries. The message may well have been overshadowed by the international intervention in Mali and the US once again talking up the threat of Islamic militancy on the continent, but Clinton had made the right noises.

“The days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over in the 21st century,” she said.

The pressure to turn this sentiment into reality is great, but the prospect of a meaningful change in the nature of the US – or indeed any of the other major western trading partners’ relationships with the continent – is a distant one. Crude oil accounts for around 80 percent of US imports from Africa, and another six percent is made up of metals and precious stones.

The reliance on primary commodity exports across much of Africa is a mixed blessing. While it brings in capital and boosts growth figures, it allows the numbers to disguise the serious challenges that even the largest economies on the continent have in making development more broad-based and creating the employment that will bring individuals out of poverty.

As a powerful report from the McKinsey Global Institute shows, only 28 percent of Africa’s workforce holds stable, wage-paying jobs, with the majority instead engaged in more vulnerable, part-time or subsistence employment. At current rates, the continent should add another 54 million stable jobs over the next decade, but this will barely offset the 122 million people who will enter the workforce during that period, the report said. Africa’s compelling demographics – the sheer number of potential consumers and creators- has created a great deal of excitement, but equally the growing population creates challenges. Resources may only be a part of this – currently the sector, which is a huge contributor to growth, is responsible for just one percent of the total stable jobs.

After acting as cheerleaders for the continent, Africa’s home-grown business leaders are changing their message, from ‘invest at any cost’ to a recognition that the continent needs to grow more productive sectors and move up the value chain.

Speaking after a year in which the consequences of inequality in South African society were tragically revealed in a series of strikes and deadly violence at Marikana, the mining billionaire Patrice Motsepi told the Financial Times in March: “It’s important to identify the deficiencies but it’s actually more important to do something about it. One of the things we have done in the past is to continuously identify our failures and it has stopped there. And that’s not very helpful.”

In January 2013, the Soweto-born Motsepi pledged to give away half of his fortune to help address the country’s persistent wealth gap. He joins other African philanthropists and philanthro-capitalists, including Mo Ibrahim and Nigeria’s Tony Elumelu, who are using their own experience and success to build economies from the ground up. An insistence on taking control of both the narrative and the reality of Africa’s development has been a feature in the past year, with the message often moving from the unfettered enthusiasm and cheerleading of the last decade to pragmatism.

Even as Time Magazine finally found a foothold on the bandwagon with an ‘Africa rising’ cover story in December 2012, African leaders were saying that the time has come to turn the promise into progress. In a challenging speech to the Annual Conference of Speakers of African Parliaments, the President of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, said that while African nations were celebrating their independence jubilees, they needed to look back and see what they had achieved since winning the struggle against colonialism.

It was a sentiment echoed by the chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as she took office. “Over the last two decades we have witnessed momentous changes to the political landscape of the African continent,” she said. “Democratic elections have become the norm, demonstrating the commitment of African states to promote a political culture based on legitimacy and accountability.”

This progress, she added, was tempered by the knowledge that democratic progress had in some places been fragile, and that conflict and insecurity remain a reality in some parts of the continent.

The transformative power of democracy was a theme for leaders and statesmen, with attempted coups in Mali and the Central African Republic. Kenya’s election – seen as a potential flashpoint following violent clashes in 2007 and 2008 – and another poll in Ghana, which has established itself as the continent’s gold standard in democratic transitions. The latter was the example that Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, used as he urged Kenyans to seize the opportunity to show the world that they had put to rest the disputes of the past.

“My home country of Ghana experienced a cycle of military coups following independence in 1957, before settling into a series of democratic elections and transfers of power,” Annan said. “The new legitimacy of its political institutions enabled both responsive governance and private-sector driven development.”

The price of instability is to fall behind, as Tidjane Thiam, one of the few Africans to head a major global company, said in a CNN interview. Recalling his own experiences in the Ivory Coast, where he was a cabinet minister, he blamed the infighting and politicking in government for so many of Africa’s ills. “We are the poorest, we are the weakest, we are divided – if on top people are going to fight each other, what chance do we have?” he said.

His experience in Asia shows that national unity can lead to huge economic strides, he added. “If we spend our time fighting each other while others are working together toward a goal, we shouldn’t be surprised if we fall behind.”

African governments have taken on regional roles in peacekeeping and peace-making in Somalia, in Mali and in the Central African Republic in the past year, but the persistent conflicts that have scarred the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes and the Sahel remain.

International observers have as ever been quick to praise the success of peaceful transitions of power and to call for a greater commitment to democracy – Clinton did so in her speech in Dakar – but recent history has shown that what the old interlocutors from African nations’ traditional diplomatic partners have to say may be of dwindling relevance, compared to the growing voices from within the continent.

Not only are Africa’s institutions increasing their resources and ability to speak cogently and independently about the solutions to Africa’s challenges, its citizens, empowered by communication technology, are taking the opportunity to recapture the narrative that has so often been dictated from overseas. The uprisings in North Africa in 2010 and 2011 showed the world the power of organisation in the communications age, and reminded policymakers and business leaders that the most powerful forces of change are often internally driven, rather than externally enforced.

What many social media users in the West may have seen of Africa was limited to one hashtag: #Kony2012, created by an American filmmaker in an earnest, if patronising, attempt to raise the profile of one of Central Africa’s militant groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2013, others might just have caught the US reality star Kim Kardashian’s visit to Lagos or the launch of the “If” campaign against global hunger. But Africa has embraced social media.

The withering put-downs of international journalists reporting on the Kenyan elections in March 2013 that circulated on Twitter show that young Kenyans have taken it upon themselves to tell the story of their country. So often at the mercy of international opinion, Africa is now a continent that is broadcasting, taking control of its own narrative and shaping the world’s view for itself.


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