Africa’s Dual Battle with Progress and Chaos

Africa’s Dual Battle with Progress and Chaos

With a recent wave of coups, the continent’s democratic and prosperous trajectory is at risk. Can the United States help Africa correct this course?

After decades of stumbling progress toward democracy, suddenly, in the past few months, eight West African nations have been rocked by coups and civil wars, triggering waves of emigration to the United States and the EU, disrupting the production of oil, gas, and strategic minerals, and spreading shocking amounts of human misery.

What happened? Africa was on track to report the second fastest growth rate in the world this year, projected at 4.1 percent, compared to 3.8 percent in 2022. That puts it much higher than the global average of 2.9 percent. Only Asia’s growth of 4.3 percent will be higher.

Africa is also rich in the minerals needed for electric car batteries and other energy-transition industries. The demand for these minerals is climbing sharply and Africa is best placed to benefit from the mining and refining of these vital resources.

Yet another asset of Africa is the youth of its population. A growing cohort of people under thirty years of age means more workers, more consumers, and more new ideas. By 2050, Africa will be home to 2.4 billion under thirty, while Europe, South America, and North America will see a shrinkage of working-age populations.

Now, given recent developments, these projections may not be realized.

A Troubled Continent

Given these advantages and a potentially bright future ahead, why then is Africa in revolt?

One problem is the lack of investment in water, a necessity for rapidly urbanizing populations. Additionally, war and terror attacks are driving rural people away from land that they had long irrigated. Abandoned land is soon scoured by winds that scatter the topsoil, turning farmland into desert. The Sahara is marching south while other deserts are creeping behind the fleeing populations in the marginal areas of the Sahel and Southern Africa.

Schooling is lacking in too many places and the educated are among the first to emigrate. Once they have learned English and math, they can earn more abroad than at home—a brain drain that keeps the benefits of education from becoming a capital asset for many African lands.

For the enterprising that remain, inflation and currency fluctuations devour their savings. The coronavirus pandemic and a shortage of farm fertilizers from Ukraine only accelerated underlying trends.

At the root of it all is poor governance and state corruption. Bribery is common and placing politically-connected incompetents—a problem in every society—is arguably worse in Africa, where both tribal and political loyalties require jobs for followers lest they become rebels.

It is fashionable to incriminate the former colonizing nations, which once preferred low-priced raw materials over refined products that command higher prices. Yet African nations have been free of colonialists for at least half a century and corrupt elites have generally preferred to siphon their cut from raw-material sales rather than invest in value-adding technology that would produce higher returns over the long run. They have continued colonial economics, not departed from them.

Now, after decades, they own the failures that they once decried from pith-helmet-wearing exploiters. Overall, African elites have never managed to find national consensus in favor of stable and inclusive political systems, preferring tribalism and populism to political struggle around a social goal.

In the handful of cases where societies did unify and reform, economic growth surged, education improved, and poverty fell. Meanwhile, gangrenous states have allowed or encouraged the spread of terror groups across the Sahel for twenty years. This, too, drives away farmers and teachers while perpetuating poverty. All of this produces despair and desperate people imagine a savior, someone strong enough to right all of the wrongs.

Failing to produce a local model of reform, African leaders are seduced by China, which marries the idea of a strongman-savior with that of an alternative to the West. As one leader told former U.S. treasury secretary Larry Summers: “Look, I like your values better than I like China’s. But the truth is, when we’re engaged with the Chinese, we get an airport. And when we’re engaged with you guys, we get a lecture.”

The Scramble for Africa 2.0 and America’s Role

A new “scramble for Africa” is underway—and the West is way behind. China has become the main economic partner in Africa. Turkey has built its first military base abroad (in Somalia). Vladimir Putin’s Russia is “rediscovering” Africa, pushing aside the Wagner Group to manage military affairs directly. Democratic regression in Africa also reflects great power dynamics. It is in this context that the latest coups must be placed.

Anti-French sentiment is linked to Paris’ refusal to change the paradigm. The soldiers are acclaimed by the people because the people are exasperated by the inefficiency of the state and the absence of public services.

The United States is right to refuse foreign military interventions which would only crystallize mistrust and weaken nations. Still, Washington has a leading role to play for several reasons.

First, America has no colonial liabilities, which is a definite advantage in the current context. Moreover, if the United States is faithful to its values, it will develop an accompanying policy for strengthening democracy, fighting corruption, and encouraging investment.

Second, America could offer a framework for investment in mining and energy projects in exchange for transparency. This would mean that ordinary Africans, not the elites, would take the lion’s share of the returns.

Third, America could also work to stabilize African currencies—perhaps through currency boards that would peg those monies to the U.S. dollar—to defeat the scourges of inflation and devaluation.

American leadership, within the framework of international institutions, would allow Africa to emerge from underdevelopment and allow the world economy to benefit from its reservoir of growth. Otherwise, dictatorships will continue to make Africa synonymous with misery.

Ahmed Charai is the Publisher of Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. He is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, the International Crisis Group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the Center for the National Interest.

Image: U.S. State Department.