From medieval times, when Africa was known as the “Dark Continent” to now, it is ignorance about this vast land that rules popular perception. Then, little by little – although it has taken a very long time – explorers and writers began to shed some light on the continent. Or at least on small pockets of it. Quite amazing, when you consider that our species, Homo Sapiens, first made its appearance in, and then began journeys from, Eastern Africa.

Those of us who have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness know it chiefly as a land of murky and meandering rivers that lead to even murkier and dangerous trade and exploitation by the Europeans. Those who relate to Out of Africa find adventure in the romanticized vision of colonial Africa, with its plantations and vast, almost infinite skies. Those who have read Graham Greene would have seen the exploitation and felt the daily struggles of its people up close and in a visceral way. And those who have enjoyed Paul Theroux’s travel tales through various parts of Africa would have not just felt the daily struggles of its people but also their powerlessness to change things.

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Early morning, boxers at North Beach, Durban; Image: Wikimedia Commons, Krigers Naidoo CC by SA 4.0

Africa is and must be all these things, and perhaps a lot more. It is not just a vast continent of 54 countries, but a sea of humanity belonging to different religions, communities and tribes, each with its own customs, language, culture and story to tell. The world’s first contact with Africa was probably through the abominable practice of slavery which began in the 15th century, when the Portuguese took large numbers of West Africans to Europe and later, even to their other colonies, like Brazil. There have been recent expressions of acknowledgement and remorse over slavery in America, particularly at American Universities such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Anyway, I am not even going to pretend that I can begin to tell the journey of this continent. However, I feel compelled to write this post because of certain changes that I notice taking place on the African firmament. And because they make me hopeful for the African people.

The first glimmer of hope I see is in the people’s capacity to bring about change in the political guard. The old satraps who had ruled many African countries with an iron fist for decades have had to make way for new, emerging leaders who have a different vision of where they would like to take their countries. Whether it is Jacob Zuma of South Africa or Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, old leaders have been ousted by their own parties, albeit on popular demand, which suggests to me a certain dynamism in the political process. Their people sense that change is in the air and they have taken control of their future by trying to usher in greater democracy. Now, it is also well-known that the new leaders who have taken over – Emmerson Mnangagwa (aka “The crocodile”) in Zimbabwe and Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa – are not vastly different from their predecessors, so people need to exercise their democratic rights carefully. In Nigeria, the re-election of Muhammad Buhari as President was expected, but several strongmen leaders were ousted in the recent elections. In the Democratic Republic of Congo as well, there has been a change of leadership in the country’s first election after 59 years of independence. And as I write this, Bouteflika has resigned in Algeria, under pressure from the people. However, people everywhere must move ahead cautiously and choose their leaders sensibly.

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Malawian troops serving as UN Peacekeepers in Beni, DR Congo, 2018; Image: Wikimedia Commons, Myriam Asmani CC by SA 2.0

As we now know, across North Africa, the change that the Arab Spring promised in 2011 soured for most countries, with many such as Libya and even Algeria still in the throes of chaos, conflict and violence. In Egypt, the old army general is back as a strongman leader – appreciated by the current American regime – and Tunisia which saw the most peaceful transition to democracy finds itself at the crossroads now. There is no telling how quickly things can slide back into hell.

Persistent and consistent change requires strong institutions and strong economies. Africa has received large amounts of foreign aid in the past, though never sufficient for taking care of its teeming millions. In recent years, foreign investment too has started to pour in. And, of course, you guessed right if you thought China has something to do with it. China’s insatiable demand for natural resources and commodities has made Africa its investment destination of choice. This demand for Africa’s natural resources and wealth is also making China invest heavily in developing infrastructure across the continent, providing greater connectivity to ports for export.

The March 9th issue of The Economist talks of the new scramble for Africa and how the Africans could win it for themselves this time. I agree with this view and sincerely hope that this round of international interest in Africa is not going to be imperialism 3.0. They quote a study by Takaaki Masaki of the World Bank and Nicolas van de Walle of Cornell University that has found that African countries grow faster if they are more democratic. China might not agree, but it is up to the African people, and their new-found optimism and courage, to guard their democratic rights and privileges zealously.

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Serengeti Park, Tanzania; Image: Chen Hu on Unsplash

Of course, it isn’t China alone, but America, France, UK, Russia and even India that have large trade and investment deals with various countries in Africa. And that can only be a good thing for Africa. Anything that creates more markets and strengthens an African country’s negotiating position must be welcomed. According to Brookings Institution, Chinese FDI stock in African economies grew from US$ 149 million in 2003 to US$ 32.4 billion in 2014. The Economist says that China’s stock of FDI rose to US$ 40 billion in 2016, just a little less than France’s US$ 49 billion.

How well have African countries grown in recent years, especially in the decade since the financial crisis in 2008? This is by no means representational of the entire African continent, but purely for the purposes of seeing the trend of growth in Africa, I have taken four African countries, three established economies (South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria) and one conflict-ridden one (Democratic Republic of Congo), to see how they have fared in comparison with the help of an interactive chart of the World Bank. If we observe the annual GDP growth rates, with the exception of South Africa that slowed considerably, Nigeria, Congo and Kenya grew until about 2010-11 and then began to slide. Congo saw the sharpest fall around 2014 and I would think this had something to do with the escalation in their internal conflict. Only Kenya shows a healthy growth during the entire decade. It appears to me that Nigeria and Congo, being the most resource and export-dependent economies suffered the worst impact of global commodity prices and demand fluctuations. For the entire Sub-Saharan region, growth is expected to be 3.3% in 2019 and 3.6% in 2020 according to the World Bank.

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GDP growth for four African countries 2008-2020; Image: World Bank website

If one looks at the composition of these countries’ economies, we find that they reflect the patterns seen in most developing economies, with agriculture accounting for about 20% of the economy, except in South Africa where agriculture is less than even 5% of GDP. Industry averages about 20-30% of GDP except in Congo, where it is 42% of the economy, which is understandable given its rich mineral resources. Services ranges between 40 and 50% of GDP in three countries and is close to 70% in South Africa, which is probably just a sign of the maturity of the South African economy. What is surprising is that for a services-dependent economy, South Africa has one of the highest rates of unemployment which has hovered around 30% for most of the past decade.

Like most developing economies, African countries also suffer from high inflation and large public debt. According to the World Bank, in the first half of 2018, six frontier economies in Africa raised a record US$ 14.3 billion in Eurobonds. The extent of government debt varies, with Nigeria which has a current account surplus reporting the lowest debt at around 25% of GDP, Kenya and South Africa both average at a little over 50% of GDP and Congo is in the worst position with debt at over 100% of GDP.

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Significant gross government debt; Image: World Bank website

These are vulnerabilities of almost all African economies, but where they need most help from their own people and the international community is in setting up and strengthening their institutions. Their political leaders have for the most part, colluded with international powers and companies to offer them lucrative deals on land and resources, while enriching themselves at the country’s expense. It was so even in the most recent corruption cases against Jacob Zuma where Indian businessmen, the Guptas, were also implicated.

In Zimbabwe, political repression and mismanagement led to an economic catastrophe, with Mugabe seizing land from white landowners and giving it to powerful party elites in the ZANU-PF (Mugabe’s party), leading to the collapse of agriculture and productivity. Hyperinflation followed and the only way the government could stop the disaster was to give up the Zimbabwean dollar and adopt the US dollar instead. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson explain in their book, Why Nations Fail:

What happened in Zimbabwe after 1980 was commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa since independence. Zimbabwe inherited a set of highly extractive political and economic institutions in 1980. For the first decade and a half, these were maintained relatively untouched. While elections took place, political institutions were anything but inclusive. Economic institutions changed somewhat; for example, there was no longer explicit discrimination against blacks. But on the whole the institutions remained extractive, with the only difference being that instead of Ian Smith and the whites doing the extracting, it was Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF elites filling their pockets.

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Cape Town’s largest reservoir, Theewaterskloof at 11% capacity in 2018; Image: Wikimedia Commons, Zaian CC by SA 4.0

It is worth remembering that it is the countless poor in Africa who suffer at the hands of these corrupt regimes. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of extremely poor people continues to be very high and is even growing in some countries: Number of people in extreme poverty (those living on less than $1.90 a day) in Nigeria has grown from 51 million in 1990 to 86 million in 2013 and in Congo, the number has similarly increased from 24 million in 1990 to 55 million in 2013. The population problem too is acute in Africa with more than half of the world population growth likely to come from this region by 2050 according to the UN. And once again, countries like Congo and Nigeria are likely to contribute the most to the population explosion.

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Sudanese migrants in Calais, France; Image: Wikimedia Commons, VOA-Nicolas Pinault (Public Domain)

This combination of population growth, acute poverty and ethnic conflict make life unbearable for many Africans who are migrating to Europe and other countries in droves. By helping these countries grow and build strong institutions, the international community can stem the flow of migrants; after all nobody likes to leave home if life were normal and economic prospects were bright. Instead, Trump was seriously considering cutting aid to Africa and funding to UN agencies, a great part of whose work is in that fated continent, until it met with bi-partisan Congressional opposition. Even now, his plan is only to counter China’s influence in Africa. Worse, he heaped insults with his “shithole countries” remark.

Graham Greene, who made numerous trips to Africa and whose favourite haunt was Freetown in Sierra Leone, has this to say reminiscing about “those days” in the second part of his autobiography, Ways of Escape:

‘Those days’ – I am glad to have had them; my love of Africa deepened there, in particular for what is called, the whole world over, the Coast, this world of roofs, of vultures clanging down, of laterite paths turning rose in the evening light. My cook who went to prison for witchcraft, my steward who was sentenced unjustly for perjury, the boy from the bush who arrived with no recommendation from anyone and took charge of me as faithfully as Ali did of Scobie, refusing the bribes offered by the representative of another secret service, SOE, to leave my employ – were they just inhabitants of Greeneland? As well tell a man in love with a woman that she is only a figment of his imagination.

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Darfurian refugees from Sudan in Eastern Chad; Image: Wikimedia Commons, European Commission DG ECHO CC by SA 2.0

Surely, the time has come for the world to do right by Africa and to stand by its countries. It looks like they have a real chance this time. And this is their time, their century, to rise against centuries of injustices.

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