Africa’s economic take-off: It is elections (however dubious) that really count

Can a country develop in spite of atrocious governance? This would appear a no-brainer, it is common knowledge that a country’s economic growth is inextricably linked to its political ethos: the stronger this is, the better, and consequently the more prosperous.

But just how deep the governance connection is was ably put into focus last week when World Bank economists Wolfgang Fengler and Shantaj Devarajan co-authored a piece that showed that most African countries would reach Middle Income Status (MIC) by 2025.

It was interesting to learn that 22 sub-Saharan African countries are already classified as MICs. Who knew? But even more surprising was the identity of some the countries that are in this category. The usual democratic suspects—Botswana, South Africa, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Seychelles—were all in there.

Not too many eyebrows would be raised at the inclusion of Zambia, Ghana and Nigeria et al, due to the resource boom they are basking in, specifically oil.

Even outliers like Angola, not exactly a paragon of governance, could be explained away by the massive revenues earned from oil, in that some still remained for the citizenry after the elite were done skimming the cream.

But this is the common narrative for the likes of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sudan, Cameroon and Mauritania, which are also ranked as middle income by the World Bank, despite being run by the typical omniscient Big Man.

Let’s leave out for now the strong argument that the rather weak World Bank classification of an MIC (more than $1,000 per capita) actually creates several strata within this band, lumping together countries such as Congo-Brazzaville with China and Mexico.


Let’s also neglect that powerhouses such as Kenya are not classified as MICs as would be expected, and instead focus more on the leadership, specifically the commitment to holding regular elections, however dubious.

The recently-released (Mo) Ibrahim Index of African Governance threw up some interesting nuggets of information in this regard.

Over the last six years, the top three upward movers have all been post-conflict countries: Liberia, Angola and Sierra Leone. These three are now enjoying a prolonged period of stability, and have recently held elections.

The majority of the other top movers are in West and Central Africa, and have all also held elections in recent years, even if the ballot's credibility has been questioned. They are a motley collection, ranging from the Central African Republic to Equatorial Guinea.

Tellingly, the tail-enders, Eritrea, Libya and Madagascar, are stuck in one form or the other of a political crisis (although bafflingly, Senegal, South Africa and Kenya can also be found in the strugglers section too).

The secret seemingly is that the more elections are held, the better it is for the national psyche, which leads to more rapid wealth creation. The redistribution of this wealth is a different issue altogether: Equatorial Guinea, for example, has a staggering per capital GDP of $27,500, comparing favourably with most European countries, but also has one of the lowest expenditures on health relative to its national wealth.

The message is that keeping your subjects artificially poor or “nurturing poverty” is necessary, since this allows for the creation of classes and a dependency syndrome of the master and servant, the leader and the led.

But throwing in regular elections helps create a smokescreen that makes the hoi polloi have a say in the running of the country, even when they really don’t, encouraging them to work even more.

Twitter: @ShrewdAfrican

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