Is This the Century of Africa's Rise?

By Oscar Rickett

For decades, the dominant African narrative in the media was of famine, war, and disease. Recently, in light of a perceived economic upturn and a relative reduction in famine and disease across most of the continent, the narrative has changed to one of thrusting progress. The Economist and TIME magazine have both published big articles in the last two years called “Africa Rising,” complete with positive economic statistics and photos of children flying rainbow kites in the shape of the African continent.

We have moved from pictures of starving children with flies crawling across their faces to pictures of young men in big cities talking on mobile phones. Of course, neither narrative is correct. No narrative that attempts to take on something so large and diffuse can ever be correct. But there is something about these conveniently totalizing stories that fires the passions of believers and cynics alike. Believers point to fast-growing economies and fragile but intact democracies, non-believers refer to what the Kenyan writer and investigative journalist Parselelo Kantai told me was an “insidious little fiction manufactured by global corporate finance.”

The idea of Africa’s rise comes from a straightforward interpretation of high growth rates and increased foreign investment in parts of the continent. As The Economist’s piece pointed out, “over the past decade, six of the world's ten fastest-growing countries were African.” According to McKinsey & Company, real GDP in Africa grew twice as fast in the 00s as it did in the 80s and 90s. Suddenly everyone has a mobile phone and that mobile phone has great reception.

Renaissance Capital’s Charles Robertson, author of The Fastest Billion, drew my attention to annual growth rates of “around six percent across sub-Sahara since 2000. Some say rapid growth is inevitable from a low base. This is nonsense. People got poorer in sub-Saharan Africa from 1980 to 2000.” Recent growth in Africa and rapid increases in Asia-Africa trade and investment have taken place against a backdrop of global austerity. As people struggle desperately in southern Europe, gas and oil resources are enriching a new generation in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and even—if proposed exploration occurs this year—Somalia and Somaliland.

The problem, though, is that most of this wealth is extractive. There is, as Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, told me, a “lack of value added on the African side." “The energy companies are seeing massive domestic demand from Asia and they are capitalizing on that,” he said.

Parselelo Kantai put it more bluntly: “What is happening on the continent economically is a new era of massive resource extraction, catalyzed mostly by Chinese domestic demands. And because it is almost exclusively extraction without on-site value addition, it's a process where the continent's elites, the Chinese and Westerners, are the only people who benefit. I don't see why it shouldn't be called by its real name: the Second Scramble for Africa.” 

What both Smith and Kantai are referring to is a system in which an elite minority, often not from Africa, benefit extraordinarily from the natural resources the continent has and the world needs. The outsiders may not wear pith helmets and long for a proper cup of tea any more, but it's colonial business as usual.

In his excellent, much debated piece “The Myth of Africa’s Rise”, Rick Rowden picks up on this and highlights how Africa rising evangelists “don’t mention manufacturing, or its disturbing absence, in Africa.” A recent UN report shows that manufacturing has stagnated across most of Africa and has even regressed in 23 African countries. As Rowden points out, rich countries “figured out long ago, if economies are not moving out of dead-end activities that only provide diminishing returns over time (primary agriculture and extractive activities), and into activities that provide increasing returns over time (manufacturing and services), then you can’t really say they are developing.”

However, Lucy Corkin of Rand Merchant Bank told me that “Africa reinventing the wheel on manufacturing is not going to help us much, as we've lost that game to Asian manufacturing capabilities. The key is for African countries to focus on the service industry that goes with natural resource exploitation." It is a disagreement with Rowden, of sorts, but the question remains the same: if enough Africans aren’t benefiting from all this so-called economic growth—and if the continent isn’t financing its own development—will Africa really “rise” in the coming years?

This is perhaps most clearly seen in the way in which global corporations have greedily latched on to the idea of a phoenix-like Africa, rising from the ashes of famine and disease to swoop past the sun of bumper oil and mineral extraction deals. As the Nigerian novelist Chika Unigwe put it to me, “Resources and access to services are unequally distributed across Africa.” Nigeria, for example, has a large and rising GDP, but this is partly due to the systematic pillaging of the Niger Delta by multinational oil companies.

Here, for example, is Chevron, employing the Africa rising narrative to great effect by suggesting that they are “helping worlds expand.” Replace that with “helping worlds end” and “systematically destroying the environment and consistently bribing politicians and warlords” and you might have a more accurate, if less consumer-friendly ad. For companies like Chevron, Shell, and BP, this is what Africa’s rise in the coming century can constitute: the chance to make them even richer than they are already.

There are signs, though—in countries like Ghana, particularly—that energy resources won’t always automatically flow out of African countries and into the West. Some African countries are starting to use their own energy. In Patrick Smith’s words, “There is now more than one model”—the past model being the "find oil, call Shell" model. As Parselelo Kantai says, “Everybody else finances their own development, so why can't we?” SOAS’s Stephen Chan, author of The Morality of China in Africa, also sees some hope in this area. He told me that this coming century will be the African century because:

“Africa will learn how to negotiate properly with China. This will be the springboard to an interesting century, where China will be the dominant global player, but Africa will begin its own rise. It'll still have a raw materials advantage, but—as well as learning how to negotiate with China—it will have also developed manufacturing capacity so it can play two major cards in its negotiations.”

China, with its aging population and hampered by its one-child policy, will begin to lose the upper hand in its negotiations with Africa. Africa’s population looks set to double by 2050 and, if sport is anything to go by, the team with the most players often wins. Anyway, the dark neo-colonialism of China’s involvement in Africa is often overplayed because it fits into a convenient narrative for the media in the West. 

Africa’s rise in the coming century will not be determined solely by economic indicators, though. And, as I have said, the pushing of the “rising” narrative in culture and in the media goes hand in hand with finance. Elliot Ross, who writes for Africa Is a Country, a website that consistently and accurately skewers patronizing Western misconceptions or brandings of Africa, wrote this in relation to a video that sought to show African (in this case, Kenyan) guys in a positive light:

“Do we really need this kind of ‘positive image for Africa’ stuff? At best, it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR ‘brand Africa’ shtick is boring, patronizing and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honored way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained—and much beloved—supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity.”

When Mary Harper, the Africa editor of the BBC’s World Service, spoke to me, she also picked up on this. For her, the idea of an African rise is merely the other side of the “starving Africa” idea that persisted before it. The West, she says, “is playing hysterical catch-up” because they’ve realized money can be made in post-colonial Africa. Both the Africa rising and starving Africa narratives are “patronizing” and fail to take into account the complexities of the situation, as well as political problems like growing Islamism, entrenched leaders, and fighting of various kinds across the continent.

This leads in to what the writer Teju Cole famously referred to as the “White Saviour Industrial Complex,” which he laid out in seven tweets. “The white saviour,” Cole wrote, “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon and receives awards in the evening.” We must be wary, when thinking of Africa’s future from a Western standpoint, of thinking of it in a way that actually does nothing more than satisfy our desire to be emotionally nourished by the warm soup of doing good things.

The question of Africa’s rise is not solely determined by outside involvement, either. There is currently a pretty much uninterrupted belt of Islamist control running from Kenya and Somalia in the east to Nigeria in the west. The fighting in Mali is testament to this. Religion has never been as divisive in Africa as it has been in the rest of the world, but this century could see a change in that. 

The presence of Robert Mugabe, Paul Biya, Teodoro Obiang, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, and Yoweri Museveni, all of whom have been in power in their respective countries for over 25 years, doesn’t indicate the presence of a “rising” generation of African politicians, either. But still cities grow and hope rushes through the streets across the continent, even in countries like Somalia, which has an international reputation akin to Mordor.

The continued, relentless profiteering—both emotional and financial—of outsiders will go on throughout the next century. Africa’s real rise will only come about if resources can be taken control of by Africans and used to lessen inequality and spread wealth. As with many countries in the West, a so-called “rise” could really just mean a triumph of free market economics and an increase in inequality. This might suit an elite cabal of African power-players and Western CEOs, but it won’t do anything for ordinary men and women across the continent.

Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow

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