Afro Optimism or Afro Pessimism?

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Despite recent negative headlines about the Ebola outbreak, Africa has made headlines the last years due to a growing Afro-optimism. What is the real reason for this? Improved Governance? High Growth and the rise of the middle class? Fewer Conflicts? Or noneof the above?

As far as conflicts are concerned, the persistence violence in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Nigerian and Mali confirms that Africa is prone to political and religious violence. However, Africa and south of Sahara is not the most endemic region in world. Asia is far the most war prone region in the world right now http://www.cfr.org/global/global-conflict-tracker/p32137#!/ Furthermore, conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to Asia are not longer or more frequent on a wars-per-country basis. As far as the brutality of the conflicts, Syrian civil war is by far the most brutal at least since its outbreak combining the fatalities of the conflicts in Mali, CAR and Nigeria.

Indeed, the crucial factor here is the u-turn in the nature of violence in the region from inter state wars to intra state. The character of warfar is changing rapidly. Modal wars such as in Zaire in 1997, and the long wars in the Horn between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which involved two major, territory-holding armies fighting each other for state control have been replaced by smaller wars. They most often involve small insurgencies of factionalized rebels on the peripheries of states. Today’s wars also play out differently. They exhibit cross-border dimensions, and rather than drawing funding from big external states they depend on illicit trade, banditry, and international terrorist networks. Northern Mali is another case in point – prior to seizing control of the north, the Islamists moved across multiple countries in the Sahel. Once they gained territorial control in 2012, they attracted fighters from Nigeria and across North Africa. The jihadis in Mali and Somalia, the separatists in Casamance, and the rebels in Darfur are certainly fighting for a cause.

What about growth is concerned? In April 2011 The Africa Bank of Development released a market brief on“The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the African Middle Class”. However, very few seem to transition from the “floating class” to actual middle class territory.. Sixty-one percent of Africans still live below the $2 poverty line according to the Africa Bank of Development. Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies are African, but seven of the 10 most unequal countries in terms of income distribution are too. igeria is not that different: hailed for its top growth and diversifying economy – the latter in no small part due to billionaire Aliko Dangote’s growing empire – it is also fast becoming the country where the super-rich fly out their lunch while the rest of the Nigerians are stuck in slow-motion traffic. As soon as those two are factored in, discussing the “African middle class” as a homogenous entity seems absurd. Nevertheless, there is a growing and rising middle class in Africa but in fact it seems angry and furious about the poor levels of education, about the lack of electricity, but above all about corruption at the very top. And they see the growing ranks of ill-educated, unemployable young people being churned out of badly-managed state education systems.

Final, but not least and related to the two points above is Govenance in Africa. As an Africanist, I always wait for the annual release of Mo Ibrahim Index of Governance an index about the level and quality of governance in Africa. Director General of the Royal African Society in London, Mr Richard Dowden has writen a marvelous piece outlining among others some important aspects to be taken into consideration: among them, the fact that in African countries where Presidents rule for more than ten years, these countries bottom the half of all the indices, which include Safety & Rule of Law, Participation & Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity, and Human Development.

Is there an explanation to this? Several countries in the continent are poorly run by heads of states, rulers, or dictators under a a primogeniture system, where sons inherit the country from their fathers. Among others, in Gabon, Ali Bongo succeeded his father Omar in 2000, In Togo: Faure Gnassingbé was installed when his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, died in 2005, In Kenya,Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenyas’ first President, Jomo Kenyatta, is the current president.

To sum up, Ghanaian scholar Dr George Ayittey has given (although it is sometimes hyperbolic) the protype of such leadership which is seems to remain unchanged albeit the years that passed:

I am Musugu Babazonga, the President-For-Life of the Coconut Republic of Tonga in the Gulf of Guinea. Don’t mind Julius Nyerere of Tanzania; he called himself “Mwalimu” (Teacher), while Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire changed his name to “Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga”, which, in the local Lingala language, meant, “The rooster who leaves no chicken untouched”. And forget about Idi Amin who called himself “The Conqueror of the British Empire”. My name trumps them all. My people call me the “Cutlass” (machete). I behead terrorists. Anybody who opposes me is a terrorist. They give me nightmares. I can’t sleep at night. Haba. That’s terrorism.

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