For nearly two decades Africa’s economic turnaround has been the dominant narrative coming out of a continent whose state was once a “scar on the conscience of the world”. The Savannah Lions were on the prowl.
Maternal and infant mortality was declining. School enrolment was climbing. Literacy was on the march. Cities were pulsating with arrival of new workers. Tens of millions of new jobs in retail and services were sprouting. Mobile money was transforming commerce and communication.
According to Mo Ibrahim, democracy was on the march. There were more elections on the continent than at any other time. GDP growth surged and debt declined. Many casual observers believed that prosperity was firmly launched and democracy was on the march. Africa is so large as to defy sweeping generalisations. And the long road of progress and durable prosperity is tortuous.
We have witnessed some curves. Growth has slowed. Freedoms have been curtailed and democracy has been strained. Debt levels have soared. Inequality has widened and quality of public services — healthcare, education, water and sanitation, security and housing — has declined inexorably. Increased unemployment has spawned despondency among Africa’s youth.
You may argue that this is too grim a portrait of the continent. But where are the true bright spots? The departure of South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn are immediately instructive. Zuma was the paragon of impunity, the embodiment of high graft.
With Zuma at the helm, South Africa’s image was stained. The land of Madiba, which galvanised the hope of Africa’s renaissance, degenerated into corruption, economic mismanagement and poverty, unemployment and xenophobia. More importantly, Zuma precipitated the irretrievable decline of Africa’s oldest political organisation, the African National Congress.
The model of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has been many things but democratic. Two years of citizen protest have been met by blistering state brutality, mass incarceration and death. The soft underbelly of EPRDF’s economic model, which has been lauded by many Western development experts, has been exposed. Genuine and durable economic progress cannot be antithetical to fundamental human rights and freedom.
Nearly 18 months after his term in office ended, Joseph Kabila remains in power in the DR Congo, a country whose disintegration is nearly complete. In the wake of an escalating humanitarian crisis, about 7,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled into neighboring unstable Burundi and more than 1,000 have crossed into Tanzania this month.
Admittedly, a wave of uncertainty is rising across the African continent. This does not bode well for nearly 900 million Africans who are below the age of 35. Despotic, totalitarian and corrupt governments will not deliver quality health and education or create equitable economic growth that delivers jobs and prosperity for Africa’s burgeoning youth population.
Poor governance, economic decline and the erosion of fundamental freedoms and democracy will undoubtedly turn Africa’s youth bulge into a virulent curse. We must forestall decline and despondency, restore civil liberties and entrench inclusive prosperity on the continent.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University