17 October 2018

Africa Needs Dramatic Political Changes to Fulfill its Promise

Much has been made about Africa’s promise, with many experts proclaiming that the 21st century would become the “Century of Africa” as that region’s economy takes off, driven by the world’s fastest-expanding population.  Unfortunately, now that we are nearly one-fifth of the way through the 21st century, there is a growing fear that this promise may go unfulfilled.  

Since the beginning of this century, Africa’s economy has expanded by 4.8% per year, a higher rate of growth than any other region outside of Asia.  However, over the past four years, the region’s economy has slowed significantly, with average annual growth coming in at just 3.1% per year, due in large part to lower commodity prices in recent years.  

While there are many economic reasons for Africa’s recent struggles, politics too plays a major role in the region’s problems.  Conflicts, insurgencies and unrest continue to plague too many countries in the region, harming the prospects of many of the region’s most important countries, including such giants as Nigeria and Congo.  As these political troubles show no signs of abating, it is time for the region to consider more dramatic political changes if it is to achieve the levels of growth and stability that Africa will need to meet the demands of the world’s fastest-growing population. 

Many political factors are preventing Africa from reaching the levels of economic growth and development that are needed as the region’s population explodes.  Here are the five main political factors: 

  • A Lack of Regional Integration: One key factor in Africa’s struggles is the lack of regional integration that has led to deep divisions among the countries of the region on issues ranging from security to trade.  
  • Foreign Domination: Another factor is the high degree of foreign influence that is still too pervasive in most areas of Africa, as these foreign powers are rarely looking after the interests of Africans and are simply after the region’s resources.
  • Weak and Corrupt Leaders: Internally, political leadership in Africa is all too often characterized by weak and corrupt political leaders and parties, with many political leaders or parties in Africa having a near unassailable grip on power.
  • Divided Countries: Most countries in Africa are characterized by populations that are divided along ethnic, linguistic or religious lines, making it very hard for those countries to enjoy prolonged periods of stability, or to share common national goals.
  • Constant Conflict and Unrest: Wars and insurgencies are still much too common across Africa, with at least 30 conflicts or insurgencies of varying degrees of intensity currently taking place across the region.

Given this multitude of political factors that are destabilizing Africa today, it is easy to see why the region’s economy is not performing as well as many had hoped.  In fact, as long as Africa’s political situation remains as it is today, there is little chance that the region’s economy will grow fast enough to meet the needs of its fast-rising population, let alone lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the manner that Asia’s economic miracle was able to do over the past few decades.

Of all of these political factors that are holding back Africa’s development, none is more frustrating than the lack of regional integration.  While there have been some efforts and regional integration, such as the African Union, the East African Community or ECOWAS, none of these have achieved a level of political or economic integration that has truly benefitted their member states.  Furthermore, individual African countries continue to shun most efforts at regional integration, usually due to the fact that the leaders of these countries are fearful that this will weaken their grip on power in their countries. However, it is clear that integration is vital to Africa’s future success, as no individual country in the region is powerful enough to lead Africa, nor resist foreign advances in the region.  For example, political and defense ties among African states need to be strengthened in order to deal with the multitude of security threats facing the region. Likewise, economic integration is needed to facilitate cross-border trade and investment, which remains for the most part pathetically low.  To do this, the region’s infrastructure must be expanded and modernized, as travelling between African countries today is an arduous and costly experience, and one that is thwarting the expansion of trade and investment within Africa.  

In addition to a higher degree of integration, many other political changes are needed if Africa is to fulfill its promise as a center of global growth and development in the 21stcentury.  For example, African countries must find a way to attract even higher levels of foreign investment, while at the same time avoiding falling into the trap of foreign domination.  At the same time, African countries need to have political leaders that are accountable for their actions.  Most importantly, African countries need internal stability, something that is a prerequisite to achieving the levels of economic growth and living standards that the region needs in order to thrive in the 21stcentury.  Without all of these changes taking place, it is difficult to see how Africa will rise to the challenges facing the region in the years and decades ahead.

All of the aforementioned factors raise what might be the most important issue facing Africa over the long-term, the issue of borders.  It is well-documented how the countries and borders of present-day Africa are artificial constructs, creating by former colonial powers without regard for the people who lived within, or were divided by, these borders.  In many cases, these colonial-era borders divided people of a common ethnicity, language or religion.  In other cases, these borders created states and are comprised of two or more (sometimes many more) ethnic, linguistic or religious groups, and these groups have found it difficult to work towards a common national goal as local interests have repeatedly trumped national ones.  As a result, most African countries have been beset by internal divisions that have often resulted in conflict and unrest, thus preventing these countries from improving their level of economic development and to raise living standards.  Therefore, it is worth asking whether or not these borders are inviolable.  Those opposed to the redrawing of borders point to the near-term chaos that such border changes could unleash.  However, the long-term benefits in terms of growth and stability surely must be considered, especially when one considers how far behind most African countries have fallen vis-à-vis their more stable emerging market counterparts in many other areas of the world.

For Africa, population growth alone will not ensure that the region follows Asia’s lead and becomes the next driver of global economic growth.  In fact, this population growth, which could see Africa’s population rise to more than 2.5 billion by the year 2050, could portend a disaster for the region and the entire world.  With a lack of many key resources and a high degree of instability, this population growth could result in a worsening of many of the problems that currently beset Africa, including widespread poverty and instability.  What Africa needs to combat these threats is major political reform. This could include better governance on a country level as well as a higher degree of political and economic integration across the region.  More dramatically, this might one day include a complete overhaul of the region’s borders, especially if a higher degree of regional integration is not achieved. What is certain is that, without major political changes, Africa will find itself ill-prepared for the challenges that await the region.