Africa’s bright days ahead

Kofi Annan Correspondent
Africa is actually doing much better than is commonly perceived. The main reason for this dramatic improvement has been the end of the series of wars that erupted at the end of the Cold War. Today, and despite a few egregious exceptions, armed conflict is actually a smaller risk to most Africans than traffic accidents. This improvement of the security situation set the stage for rapid economic growth of 5-6 percent per year for the last fifteen years.

As a result of this sustained period of growth, extreme poverty has fallen by 40 percent since 1990. Even as the major “emerging” economies are slowing down, Africa continues to grow. It is home to six of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world.

Africa’s growth can no longer be explained just by global demand for its bountiful commodities. Two thirds of Africa’s growth over the last decade has actually come from increased domestic demand for goods and services in thriving sectors such as telecoms, financial services, manufacturing and construction.

Businesses, both from within and outside the continent, are realising the potential of Africa’s young and increasingly educated and urbanised workforce. As a result, today, inflows of private investment dwarf international aid.

They have been encouraged by the efforts of governments across Africa to improve their macro-economic environments. As Burkina Faso, Guinea and Nigeria have recently demonstrated, democracy too is spreading and deepening its roots. We have seen encouraging progress towards gender parity, and the continent is moving towards universal primary education. The spread of HIV and AIDS is in decline, and the number of deaths from tuberculosis and malaria is falling. In other words, overall our continent is heading in the right direction. But progress remains uneven, reflecting the continent’s characteristic and growing diversity.

All this is not to paper over the heinous acts of Boko Haram in Nigeria or al-Shebab in Somalia, which have been making headlines, but to put them in perspective. We cannot ignore that from Mauritania in the west to Somalia in the east, the flag of Jihad is being raised. More than a dozen sub-Saharan countries are concerned, and tens of thousands have already died as a result. Boko Haram actually killed more people last year than the Islamic State. Attacks in many places are a daily or weekly occurrence. And local extremist groups are now linking up to each other across borders, and even to global franchises like Al Qaeda or Islamic State. Precisely because of these affiliations, they are generally seen through the prism of the global war on Islamist terrorism. This neglects what they have in common with other insurgencies on the continent, which have nothing to do with Islam.

Rebel groups have flourished in other impoverished parts of weak states that feel hard-done by their governments, where the population is often abused by the security forces, where they do not trust the courts to deliver justice and where they do not share in their countries’ bounty.

Another factor fuelling the emergence of violent armed groups across the continent is the large pool of unemployed young men who live in despair at their lack of prospects. Again, this is not a specifically Muslim problem: a World Bank survey in 2011 showed that about 40 percent of those who join rebel movements say they are motivated by a lack of jobs.

Bearing these facts in mind, it becomes obvious that another “War on Terror”, this time in Africa, is no more likely to succeed than the previous one. Indeed, in Africa as elsewhere, a purely military approach would be counter-productive.

The Three Pillars
As I constantly repeat, you cannot have peace and security without inclusive development, the rule of law and the respect for human rights. Those are the three pillars of all successful societies. It is largely because these three pillars are weak in many parts of Africa and the Middle East that we are seeing so much instability and violence. The truth is that the economic growth in Africa of the last fifteen years, though impressive, has been neither sufficient nor inclusive. In fact, Africa has become the world’s second most unequal continent, according to the African Development Bank. Too much of that growth enriched a narrow elite, and not enough was spent on infrastructure, health or education, which would have fostered development.

It is no coincidence if Boko Haram originated in one of the world’s poorest regions, whilst Nigeria as a whole has become a major market for luxury goods. Not only does wealth not trickle down, but it is barely taxed, robbing the state of resources to provide public services.

It is not just that Africa is unequal: it is also unfair. An African Union report once estimated that up to one quarter of the continent’s GDP is stolen every year through corruption. Corruption does not only deprive countries of wealth; it also corrodes the rule of law and the legitimacy of the state.

Finally, human rights violations remain commonplace in many countries on the continent, from widespread political repression to everyday unaccountable police brutality. Violence begets violence.

The challenge of leadership
Although the fight against violent rebel movements is necessary, and will require more inter-African as well as international cooperation, I believe that the real challenge of security in Africa is primarily a challenge of leadership. Leaders who hang on to power indefinitely by gaming elections and suppressing criticism and opposition are sowing the seeds of violence and instability. Leaders who show more concern for the protection of their peers than the protection of their people are fanning the flames of righteous indignation. Leaders who allow wealth to become concentrated in the hands of a minority of well-connected insiders while the majority struggles undermine the legitimacy of their rule.

African leaders, like leaders everywhere, must remember that they are at the service of their citizens, and not the other way around. They have a mandate given to them, in trust, by their people, who can also take it away from them if they are found wanting, as they did in Burkina Faso.

The silver linings playbook
The most urgent challenge is to create enough jobs for the continent’s youth. According to the World Bank, eleven million young people are expected to enter Africa’s labour market every year for the next decade. If these young people cannot find jobs, and do not believe in the future, they may be tempted by rebel movements of all kinds, as well as petty crime and migration.

Fortunately, Africa’s economy is still growing, although the slow-down in China is creating difficulties for those countries that did not plan for a rainy day. But the last 15 years have shown that growth alone will not suffice, especially if it is driven by employment-poor extractive industries. Africa must pursue the diversification of its economy, as some countries have already done with success. Governments must invest far more in education, infrastructure, energy, agriculture and, perhaps most importantly, create a secure investment environment.

Leaders in Africa increasingly understand the challenge they face. In 2009, the AU’s heads of state declared 2009–2018 the “African Youth Decade” and many governments are implementing youth employment schemes. Leaders must put youth at the centre of all their policies for government is about preparing the future, and youth is the future. Whenever I go to Africa, I am always struck not just by the number of young people, but also by their energy, their creativity and their talent. We should invest in them, harness their talent and ensure that the next generation of leaders will do better than we have done. — Kofi Annan is former UN secretary general. Source – African Executive

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