25 January 2014

Africa: Grave Doubts About the 'Africa Rising' Narrative


This is Africa's century. We are the last continent to line up its economic ducks in a row in a context where there is enough of a middle class to deliver on the policies necessary to move us to middle income status.

This is combined with a massive youth bulge - a giant workforce that is the healthiest, best educated and most globalised in history. Then there is the discovery of untapped natural resources on an unprecedented scale.

A powerful narrative of 'Africa Rising' has captured the global imagination and big money has rushed to the continent to take advantage of the rich pickings before the field becomes too crowded.

The key challenges confronting Africa's rise are tribalism, corruption and deepening income inequality that's easily politicised, mobilised and at the most extreme, ultimately militarised.

So the macro-economic measures of progress shall be positive, however, poverty is being replaced by a far more volatile condition of widespread inequality.

This is taking place during a time where the nature of power, and therefore the capacity of the Executive to implement mitigating policy, is changing across the world.

The changing nature of power

In his latest book The End of Power, Moisés Naim, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, articulates an interesting overview of the fundamental change in the nature of power across the world.

Let me quote at length from a recent lecture where he lays out the basic arguments of the book which he illustrates with a number of contemporary examples such as that of Pope Benedict, who became the first Roman Catholic Pontiff to resign in 600 years citing the Church's need for a leader with the energy to deal with some of the major challenges it currently faces.

Similarly, Mr Naim continues, if you had told most people 10 years ago that the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power in Egypt they would have laughed in your face. President Mohammed Morsi did not last long.

Power, Naim argues, has become easier to acquire; more difficult to use once you have it; and it has also become more fleeting - leaders are losing power quicker whether in business, politics, the Church etc. Three revolutions have taken place.

The first can be articulated as a revolution of more: we live in a world of profusion, in a condition were there is more of all things. We have also seen a revolution in mobility both in real and virtual terms people, ideas and stuff generally moves at exponential speeds.

The third revolution has been one of mentality: the contrast in attitudes between generations regarding the world around them and their place in it has grown, and continues to do so exponentially.

If we look at the world of business, Kodak which had developed over decades into the market leader in its film and photography sector was recently acquired by an upstart Internet company - Instagram - for US$1 billion.

On the political front, he reminds us that recently the world watched as an insurgent minority movement within the Republican Party in the US - the Tea Party - managed to paralyse the operations of the federal government.

On the international stage, we witnessed the president of the most powerful nation on earth threaten to attack war-torn Syria if its beleaguered leadership was found to have used weapons of mass destruction against its own citizens.

We held our breath when Western intelligence insisted that the firmly determined if apparently crumbling Syrian state had gone ahead to do just that. Still, at the end of the day, events conspired in such a way that President Obama could not attack Syria.

Perhaps then, we should not be surprised that although the Taliban government of Afghanistan was ousted by the world's most formidable military machine in 2003/2004, today, a mere decade later, the Taliban is resurgent as the US prepares to exit Afghanistan. Yes, it hasn't defeated the coalition, but it has certainly vetoed the ability of the NATO coalition to 'win'.

Naim further develops his argument by pointing out that established military powers are also confronted by asymmetrical war on an unprecedented scale. It cost Al Qaeda US$500,000 to carry out the 911 attack in the US.

The reaction of the US has a price tag of US$3.3 trillion thus far. The most transformative disruptive technologies in the military realm have become drones and improvised explosive devises (IEDs).

Naim points to statistics that indicate in wars between 1800 and 1949, the weaker side in battle won 12 percent of the time. Between 1950 and 1998, the weaker side won 55 percent of the time.

The end of power

Naim argues that while the leaders may retain power, their ability to use it today is more constrained than at any other time in human history. So power is 'decaying' making it far more risky and difficult to use; and it is fleeting.

And yet this trend is contradictory, taking place in the era of an apparent concentration of power by oligarchs, bankers etc. This is as true of national politics as it is of business, the media, sports and other sectors.

The fleeting nature of power means leaders holding onto power for shorter and shorter periods. "Power moving from West to East, from North to South, from Presidential palaces to public squares, from old established companies to young start-ups and increasingly too from men to women."

It is also shifting from State Houses to the leadership of devolved units. Directly elected Mayors, Governors etc are increasingly more popular than presidents.

And dictators never had in so rough. In 1990 the world had 69 democracies and today there are 117. Half of humanity lives in countries where governments are elected no matter how imperfect the election. Landslides at elections, Naim goes on to ague, are becoming rarer and rarer.

Elections are increasingly closely contested and victors often don't win with large margins. Powerful people are able to do less with power they wield than their predecessors.

Naim argues that 'power is becoming Italian' - governments are increasingly complex, unwieldy coalitions that are slow, fragile, unstable and unpredictable. And these coalitions are increasingly made up of the strangest bedfellows. Yesterday's political enemy is today's coalition partner.

The siasa of rejection

We are also witnessing the accent of rejectionist politics - "the notion around the world where one finds voters who are simply fed up with the traditional politicians and traditional political parties and all of a sudden they start voting for newcomers, coming out of nowhere."

These newcomers may not displace the established powers but they become a new force that can constrain the traditional power. These players cannot take power at the ballot box but can veto the decisions of traditional forces and limit the exercise of power by those who win.

Lastly, traditional powers increasingly have to contend with the growing power and currency of local governments, regional entities. Power is shifting from the centre to local governments, especially cities.

And in 2007 for the first time in history more humans live in cities than in the rural areas. One must take into account the growing power of non-state actors such as NGOs, multilateral organisations, religious actors and diverse forms of media (old and new).

'Africa rising' or 'Africa uprising'? Or both?

Its ironic that Kenya faces the kind of political challenges and opportunities it does at a time when an economic take-off is imminent. How we handle devolution and security, will determine the trajectory of this take off.

Placing Kenya in the wider continental context, it is now clear that the Africa Rising narrative that has excited investors for the seven or so years has started to lose some of its shine at the very least.

The worst of pessimists argue that when one considers the speed of the unravelling of South Sudan this narrative is now six feet under. I'm inclined to believe we are somewhere in the middle.

There was always a sense of spin and propaganda to the Africa Rising narrative. In the short-term instead we have Africa Uprising, because the truth is the region is convulsing. Critically, we must acknowledge the extent to which violence is being used as a political tool.

From Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in the Maghreb, to Nigeria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, on to Somalia and South Sudan's meltdown, we are learning that the 'rising', 'the growing up' will be extremely painful in the short term.

A common denominator is a sudden boom in the extractives sector. The troubling reality is that in the past, the discovery of on-shore oil and other high value minerals in Africa has often led to instability and violence.

However, it is also the truth that the Africa Rising narrative has persisted because there have indeed been major developments across Africa both at the macro and micro levels.

This has given the opportunity to those in Africa and elsewhere who have always wanted to bring balance to Africa's story, as the late BBC presenter Komla Dumor tirelessly insisted on.

Highlighting the positive stories is important, if one is not to fall into the trap Chinamadie Adichie warns against of telling the single story (almost always negative) when it comes to articulating Africa. But let us be careful to be realistic. The challenges remain. The moneymen perceive Africa as the last frontier for quick and easy pickings.

While developments in technology such as M-PESA have made development seem 'easy', in truth health, education, power, roads and uniting diverse peoples is always a difficult long-term process with setbacks that can and do often mean instability and war.

Redefining our democracy

It has become clear that the African Century will have to be accompanied with a considerable dose of political engineering just to hold things together. This is as true in Kenya as it is of other countries.

Our famed resilience will be tested as we engage with the realities of "democracy ... the worst form of government except all the others". The divisiveness of our first-past-the-post system of elections means we'll have to transform our democratic system to accommodate what are too often our belligerent identities.

We must ask ourselves whether our democracy is properly inclusive, representative, responsive and containing within it the legitimate mechanisms to 'self-correct' political problems.

That is the foundational if we are to turn the document that is our constitution into the reality that is our lives, not just in our court rooms but also in the large parts of the country which are governed using local mechanisms that need to be acknowledged, embraced and lent legitimacy.

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