Africa has diametrically opposing stories. One is about a continent displaying all signs of massive economic take-off. The other is a toxic reality. Sadly, the latter threatens to poison the former into obscurity.
First, the good story.
If there was an event that delivered many good prophecies for the continent, it was the annual “Africa Governance, Leadership and Management Convention”, in particular the 2012 and 2013 editions.
Hosted jointly in Mombasa, Kenya, by Nigeria-based Africa Leadership Forum and the Kenya Institute of Management, the events had high level speakers repeatedly predicting a positive future for the continent. They did so with ready statistics and expert analyses.
The speakers included former president of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo as the co-convenor, senior economists from global and continental development institutions such as the UNDP, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and African Development Bank (AfDB), and university professors, government policy makers from different countries, senior private sector executives and civil society representatives, among others.
They spoke of a generally rising economic growth in Africa that was getting all the attention worldwide; a burgeoning, energetic and educated youthful human capital; new mineral wealth; vast agricultural potential; and expanding infrastructure.
Obasanjo set the tone for the 2012 conference by narrating how the story of Africa was changing from that of a continent ravaged by poverty to one with an emerging potential for economic transformation. In that sense, he argued, focus had to change from poverty reduction to wealth generation and creation of jobs.
“When the drumming changes, the dancing also changes,” he said in his characteristic use of African proverbs to underscore his point.
Then as director of UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, Dr Tegegnework Gettu weighed in: “Private investments are flourishing. There is oil and gas boom. These are good signals for Africa.”
Dr Gettu is now Under-Secretary-General and Associate Administrator of UNDP.
AfDB’s Mr Gabriel Negatu, then speaking as the bank’s Country and Regional Director for East Africa Regional Resource Centre, stepped in with the numbers.
“The growth rates of Africa’s low income countries was well above 4.5 per cent in 2012, and is projected to remain around 5 to 5.5 per cent in the coming years. This is not just a one-off. Sustainable growth has taken place in Africa over a period of 10 years and is projected to continue in the coming years,” he said.
He went on: “Of the 20 fastest growing countries in the world, 13, or about 60 per cent, are from this continent. Out of the 54 countries in Africa, the number of middle income countries with an annual average per capita income of over $1000 is now 26. This in effect puts them in the lower rank of the middle income countries.”
“Africa’s GDP is expected to reach $2.6 trillion in 2020, which is equivalent to the current size of the UK,” added the Managing Director of United Bank for Africa (UBA) Kenya, Tunji Adeniyi.
The discussions that followed the year after (2013) at the same convention was how the continent could then harness the good indicators and hit the implementation runaway pronto.
The organisers suggested that Africa could start by consolidating strength by building strong economic and social ties among its nations and between regional economic blocs. “Opening up Africa to Africa” was the theme then.
For good measure, the discussions at these conventions had the blessings of the Africa Union Commission, represented by then deputy chairperson, Mr Erastus Mwencha. Through him, the AU Commission committed to follow through on the resolutions made at these conferences and hold political leaders to commit support and goodwill.
Somehow, however, the good story is beginning to sound more like a pipe dream; an imagination.
The World Bank, which was previously upbeat about the “Africa rising” story and had presented inspiring economic projections, has been revising its figures for sub-Saharan Africa downward since last year.
Who is letting the people of Africa down after all the promising talk?
It is hard to shake off the temptation to imagine that the return of bad politics in various parts of the continent and continued entrenchment of the same in others are playing a big role in spoiling the continent’s general development prospects.
Absence of political goodwill is discernible in many parts of Africa.
South Sudan, the newest African state, has failed to take off due to persistent political standoffs. The leaders that would be expected to build this potentially rich nation are too busy tearing at each other.
The leaders seem ever suspicious of each other, and so what has taken precedence is pure political survival rather than genuine policy making and implementation.
Next door in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, who took over the reins of government 31 years ago and brought stability to the previously unstable state, now has his hands full engaging in all manner of tricks to hang on to power.
He is too preoccupied with ‘cracking down’ on alternative voices with military might. Nothing else appears to matter to him any longer.
Rwanda’s Paul Kagame has taken cue. For trying to challenge President Kagame in the August 2017 elections, businesswoman and women right’s champion Diane Rwigara faced the wrath of state police. She was put in custody and also under house arrest, together with her mother and sister for good measure.
It is not disputable that President Kagame has lifted Rwanda to a good place since he took over power in 1994 and stopped genocide. However, his tightening grip on power could soon start choking progress out of Rwanda. Like Museveni, Kagame’s focus is shifting to political survival.
Across in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), President Joseph Kabila, whose two terms ended in December 2016, opted to stay put and wouldn’t allow elections to be held until end of 2017. That doesn’t seem to be happening either. Now there is speculation among civil society groups that the president could be buying time to make legal changes that would allow him to vie for a third term.
DRC is a mineral resource rich nation, but bad politics has left the country stunted, both economically and socially.
Over to Burundi. In 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza stubbornly ignored the law and decided to run for a contested third term, sparking off protests that police fought violently.
Up to 2000 people may have died, according to different reports, and about half a million others fled the country then.
The opposition boycotted the elections and Nkurunziza went on to win.
Talk now is rife that the President’s party could be pushing for a change in the country’s constitution to remove presidential term limits.
Zimbabwe’s story is a protracted one. President Robert Mugabe has played all the tricks in and out of the book to cling on to power. He has led the country since independence in 1980, first as Prime Minister then as president from 1987. That is 37 years of leadership in total, about half of which he has spent driving the country on a downward economic spiral.
At 93, he is now frail, tired and frequently sleepy. He still wouldn’t let go. And as if that isn’t enough, he is lining up his wife, First Lady Grace Mugabe, to become president after he is done.
Mugabe’s firing of his deputy, Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa in October, is seen as part of preparations to put the First Lady in pole position to take over, whenever that will be.
The ruling Zanu-PF is set to hold its congress in December, during which a new vice-president could be proposed. Mrs Mugabe has openly proposed herself for the job.
Over to Equatorial Guinea in West Africa is Africa’s longest serving President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who is accused of ruling the oil rich country as a personal enterprise, amassing much of the oil wealth for himself and family. He has been president since 1979.
Despite the country being one of Africa’s richest in terms of oil wealth and per capita income, a good proportion of the population lives in extreme poverty.
His son Teodorin Nguema Obiang is now the vice-president and thus well placed to take over, leave alone the fact that the young man is facing massive corruption, embezzlement of public funds and money laundering charges in Paris.
Other long serving dictatorial regimes include Paul Biya’s in Cameroun (35 years in power); Eduardo dos Santos’ in Angola (38 years in power until his recent retirement); and Omar al-Bashir’s in Sudan since 1989.
The common thread in these regimes is high corruption. But even in many regimes not mentioned here as dictatorial, the vice thrives, with nonchalant heads of state doing little to fight it.
A quote whose origin isn’t clear because it has been used vastly, captures this pretty well. “Without reforms that dismantle the financial, political, and administrative structures that perpetuate corruption, Africa will be unable to break the cycle of cronyism and bad governance that has constrained its tremendous potential for economic, political, and social development.”
No need to say more.
*The writer is the Supplements Editor at Daily Nation