The narrative surrounding Africa has shifted dramatically during the past few decades. Once considered the “dark continent” due to its history of poverty, disease, and warfare, the perception of Africa has improved in recent years, marked by headlines and publications using the term “Africa Rising” to describe its transformation. But some have questioned the true scope of Africa’s transformation and whether “Africa Rising” is the right way to describe what’s really happening on the ground.
In May 2000, the Economist ran a cover story titled, “Hopeless Africa,” where it highlighted everything wrong with the continent:
Wars still rage from North to South and East to West. No one can blame Africans for the weather, but most of the continent’s shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts are not exclusively African—brutality, despotism, and corruption exist everywhere—but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.
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A little over a decade later, in December 2011, the same publication ran an article titled, “Africa Rising,” where the continent was described as having “a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia.”
What could have changed in 10 years? Did Africa’s leaders and citizens learn the secret to economic independence, peace, and sustainable food development, while discovering the cure for HIV/AIDS? The short answer is no. The full answer, however, is a little more complicated.
The Economist is not the only publication to praise Africa’s recent progress. According to the New York Times (NYT), social entrepreneur and Princeton University fellow Vijay Mahajan published a book called “Africa Rising” in 2008, where he described the continent as a “remarkable marketplace…with massive needs and surprising buying power.” In 2011, the Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles about economic growth on the continent also titled “Africa Rising.”
The narrative of Africa as a rising investment destination isn’t unfounded. In the Economist’s article, it mentioned how since 2001, six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing countries were in Africa.
According to the article, Africa had seen faster growth in 2011 than all of East Asia in eight of the previous 10 years, due to the commodities boom and the development of the manufacturing and service economies.
However, the article warned that, “Optimism about Africa needs to be taken in fairly small doses, for things are still exceedingly bleak in much of the continent.” These words have proven to be self-fulfilling, as the “Africa Rising” narrative has suffered a hit in recent years as turmoil has spread across the continent, resulting in economic downturns in many nations.
Zambian economist and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, Grieve Chelwa, told the NYT that, “Nothing has changed on the governance front, nothing has changed structurally.”
“Africa rising was really good for some crackpot dictators,” he added
Such comments raise questions regarding the true rise of Africa? Was the continent’s growth and positive narrative simply a myth?
In recent months, such a question would demand a resounding “YES” for an answer.
Countries in Turmoil
No country on the continent is going through more turmoil than Ethiopia, where the government has continuously violated the human rights of its citizens in a desperate attempt to quell mounting protests by the country’s two largest ethnic communities. More than 500 people have reportedly been killed in protests, overshadowing an optimistic McKinsey report that listed Ethiopia as the fastest growing economy on the continent from 2010 to 2015.
The report listed the Republic of Congo second, but the country’s positive economic outlook pales in comparison to the turmoil that “has paralyzed one of Africa’s biggest cities and could be a harbinger of more bloodshed to come.” In September, at least 25 people from opposing sides of the political divide were killed in the country’s capital Kinshasa, according to the NYT.
Africa’s powerhouse economies haven’t fared much better. Nigeria, which boasts the continent’s highest population, has seen its economy spiral to new lows due to declining oil prices, while insecurity continues to paralyze the country thanks to the rise of Boko Haram. In September, the country’s credit rating was downgraded to junk status by financial services giant, Standard and Poor (S&P). According to Bloomberg, the country’s economy weakened more than expected due to contraction in oil production, a restrictive foreign exchange policy, and delayed fiscal stimulus.
South Africa, which is the continent’s most developed nation, has struggled to stabilize its currency, the rand, which continues to plunge towards record lows. Instability has also wrecked havoc in universities across the country, where armed soldiers have been deployed to subdue students protesting hikes in school fees.
Three years ago, South Sudan was the world’s fastest growing economy according to a list compiled by the Economist. Today, the country is suffering through one of Africa’s worst civil wars.
It’s safe to say that the “Africa Rising” narrative can no longer be used to describe the current state of the continent. Africa has received massive amounts of foreign aid, enabling leaders to become corrupt, while creating a culture of expectation, where African’s are looking to the West to solve issues that money can’t alleviate. The reliance on the West and now China, has altered the narrative from “Africa Rising” to “Africa Begging.”
The Way Forward
In order to start climbing out of the hole it’s helped dig itself into, Africa must make some important decision in the coming years.
The first step towards recovery have to be instituted at the state level. African leaders must make a conscious decision to empower their people with rights, jobs, and opportunities by strategically accepting foreign aid, instead of blindly accepting and pocketing it for themselves. Empowerment must become a grassroots movement, fueled by job growth, better security, and transparency in government. African’s must trust their leaders before they can follow and believe in them.
Secondly, the African Union (AU) must work together to come up with beneficial trade laws for all countries exporting and importing within the continent. Discussions are ongoing regarding the establishment of a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), a free trade agreement which, if successfully adopted, would create a single market spanning across all member states of the AU, according to the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development.
Finally, educating women and creating a level playing field for everyone on the continent will help African countries finally catch up to the developed world. There are more women than men in Africa, yet they receive a fraction of the opportunities. The continent has a higher tolerance for domestic violence and oppression against women, suggesting that a generational shift in mindset is still needed.