Page through any Africa section in the global press and you’re likely to be introduced to tech-savvy graduates in hip offices, stock traders checking commodity prices on mobile phones, or African “lions” picking up where Asia’s “tigers” left off. By now everyone has heard that six of the world’s fastest growing economies are African.
Welcome to the new Africa, we’re told, ready for take off. Indeed, Africa on the whole is emerging impressively from its “lost decades” of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Whereas just three countries had multiparty systems in 1990, today most do. Africa’s strongmen are fewer. There are armed conflicts in only a handful of nations. Gender equality is growing.
The long-term trend in foreign direct investment is upward, hitting $32 billion in 2010. Ernst & Young estimates that Africa will grow five per cent over the next decade — more than any other continent.
“New Africa” is an attractive sell. New Africa is about a miraculous triumph over a tragic past on the world’s last economic frontier, and that makes for vital reading. New Africa is also politically correct and safe: It comes across as sensitive and uncondescending.
But just as the global media tended to hype China’s and India’s prospects a few years ago only to discover that neither is about to take over the world, so the media are overselling Africa. In fact, this hopeful, marketable portrait represents a fraction of the real Africa, and melds the two worlds to obscure the backward slide taking place across much of the continent.
The number of African democracies has declined from 24 to 19 since 2005, and many of those are democracies more in form than substance, with outright theft of state capital, intimidation, compromised judiciaries, and patronage making it near impossible for opposition parties to compete —what Babacar Gueye, a Senegalese professor, calls “democracy without democrats.”
In most African countries, higher office is still largely pursued for personal wealth rather than national development.
Many countries remain heavily dependent on donor dollars. Primary school enrolment has risen in many countries, but the quality of education has not kept pace and teacher absentee rates are as high as 25 per cent in some countries.
Many university graduates can’t find work, either because there aren’t enough jobs or their skills don’t meet market demands.
Here in Uganda, home to East Africa’s top institution of higher learning, Makerere University, and with a growth rate of 8 per cent over the last five years, youth unemployment is around 80 per cent.
Trade in most African countries still mostly involves buying and selling of imports and commodities; manufacturing remains stunted amid a deluge of cheap Asian imports. Africa’s infrastructural deficit sits at $93 billion per annum. Intra-Africa trade is at 10 per cent — compared to 25 per cent in Southeast Asia — while integration plans like the East African Community remain stalled amid a shortage of expertise and political will.
Despite much media fuss about sub-Saharan Africa’s expanding middle class, poverty has risen from 292 million in 1981 to 555 million in 2005, according to the World Bank. In Nigeria, which many analysts pick to be a major hub in Africa’s renaissance, poverty has doubled to 112 million over five years.
It’s no wonder then that much of the optimism the media are reporting is not shared by most ordinary Africans — a fact reflected in the 5 percent drop in voter participation since 2007, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which measures good governance. Such detachment from the political process gives license to official abuse.
Nonetheless, Africa is showing more promise than any time since independence. Health and skills sets are improving. Birth rates are down (albeit from a high base).
Technology is helping to some extent overcome physical infrastructure barriers and has spawned growth sectors like mobile banking. The African Union has been more proactive in resolving disputes.
The media do have a responsibility to chronicle this progress, but they should also provide context: whereas individual countries — such as Ghana, Rwanda and Kenya — are making enormous strides in areas like infrastructure and fighting corruption, they largely remain unintegrated dots on a continent still struggling to live up to expectations.
-Gatsiounis is a Uganda-based author and journalist. Versions of this op-ed have been published in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune