With the turbulence in Mali Africa is back in the news, though not quite in the way one would hope. In fact most recently, until Mali, news emanating from Africa was quite positive. In its first edition of the new year 2013 the Financial Times published an article by Sebastian Mallaby, entitled “Africa is hooked on growth”. There has been a sense that Africa’s hour may have come, that it is, in the jargon of the day, “the next frontier”.
There are many positive developments taking place, as the article by Mallaby points out. There is cause for encouragement. This is important for many reasons, not least that Africa’s population is booming; by 2030 Africans will be 20% of humanity and, according to UN forecasts, 35% by the end of this century. A stable and reasonably prosperous Africa matters enormously not only to Africans, but to the entire planet. So, while good news is welcome, at the same time one must be conscious that Africa faces a number of profound challenges.
Africa will be 20% of world’s population
Three stand out. Because of the size of population Africa is at times compared to India and China. All three will correspond to roughly 20% of world population each, hence together 60%. Yet there is of course one big difference: China and India are respectively one nation; Africa has over 50. African national entities, hence African markets, are for the most part (Nigeria and South Africa are exceptions) quite small. I was in Gabon recently: the size of the country is roughly twice that of Bangladesh with less than 1/10th the population. Though there have been some developments in creating regional economic groupings, for example the East African Community including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, for the most part African states/markets are small, making it difficult to achieve economies of scale.
States but not nations
Second, is that even though they may be small, for the most part they are not really “nations”. African national boundaries are mainly defined by their colonial legacy and not by a sense of shared identity or history. There is an inherent artificiality. Thus most African countries are states without being nations. This conundrum is brilliantly analysed by historian Basil Davidson in his excellent study, The Black man’s burden: Africa and the curse of the nation-state (1992). Vast heterogeneity is not only the operative term so far as the continent in concerned, but indeed applies equally to the individual countries. Belgium may have difficult managing a country with two languages; there are over 500 living languages spoken in Nigeria. The loyalty and sense of identity of, say, a Luo or a Kikuyu is to his/her tribe, not to the rather nebulous concept of Kenya.
Governance is the key issue
This leads to the third major challenge: African countries tend to get bad scores in global governance indices. Only three African countries feature in the top 50 least corrupt according to Transparency International: Botswana (30th), Cape Verde (39th), and Mauritius (43rd). Author Michela Wrong in one of the most penetrating studies of corruption, entitled It’s Our Turn to Eat (2009) demonstrates how when a government comes to power, whether democratically or otherwise, it tends to see its main mission as distributing the spoils of victory with its fellow tribesmen and preferably quickly. The concept of “nation building” in such a context appears quite alien.
In one of the best recent publications on political economy, Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson demonstrate how the main cause of failure lies in governance and especially in those cases where institutions fail to be inclusive. This applies to many African states and certainly to Mali. To coin a phrase: the French troops and their Malian allies may win the war, but will they win the peace? For the last half-century, since independence from French formal (as opposed to persistent informal) colonial rule, Mali has experienced both dictatorship and democracy, but one thing it has emphatically not experienced is good governance. For example: money given in the form of aid to the Malian army to purchase new and better equipment was never fully utilised because of corruption.
Winning peace and prosperity
These three African challenges combined are not insoluble, but they are daunting. Solutions will continue to be elusive. A critically important step is to recognise them: especially the third. So, yes, while the economic news coming out of Africa may be encouraging, ultimately if governance remains rotten the foundations will be weak and whatever edifice is erected will crumble. All international, pan-African and individual African state efforts must be directed at making huge improvements in governance. Only then can the African peace and hence prosperity be won in a sustained manner.