Africa is…a phrase we often hear. But it is impossible to make general statements about Africa. It is the most diverse continent on the planet. And it changes fast, sometimes for the worse but increasingly for the better – although it has a daunting mountain to climb to get to where it could be. A clutch of African countries sometimes seem to be heading in a particular direction with the same policies while others are going the opposite way. It is however, occasionally possible to observe ripples of change that gradually build into waves that roll across the entire continent.
The first great wave to have rolled across Africa was that of independence. This marked the end of rule from Paris and London. Between 1954 and the end of the 1960s British and French flags were lowered all over the continent as francophone and anglophone countries won their freedom. The Portuguese colonies followed suit in the mid 1970s. Independence was greeted with immense enthusiasm by Africans, free at last. But many Africans believed that independence would soon give them the same wealth and life styles as European countries. Aid poured in to build infrastructure. Education and health improved hugely and Africa’s population rose dramatically. Only a few novelists such as Chinua Achebe dared to question the optimism of the times.
This was also the time of the Cold War, the war between capitalism and communism fought by stealth and sabotage. Walls and fences divided Europe and every inch of the rest of the planet was forced to be either pro West or pro East. In Africa, good governance was irrelevant, what mattered to the big powers was “whose side are you on?” The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and Belgium interfered directly or covertly (even controlling at times) African governments’ rulers and their policies. The French in particular would substitute one president for another if he did not obey orders from Paris. To a lesser extent Britain did too, for example in Uganda replacing Milton Obote with General Idi Amin.
The second wave hit suddenly on November 9th 1989 when mass gatherings of east Germans led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union did not intervene and a democratic revolution spread across eastern Europe. Former allies of the Soviet Union were overthrown or forced to abandon socialism. How did this affect Africa? The Cold War was over and capitalism and western-style democracy had won over communist dictatorship. The new prescription for governance in Africa was issued by the Western powers: elections and the rule of law. Long ruling African dictators were forced to hold elections – many of them for the first time since Independence. In the 1990s, one by one, African dictators and one party states were felled, driven from power by popular uprisings or the ballot box.
The third wave rolled in with the imposition ofstructural adjustmentand the free market. African governments had tried to manage their economies and protect their industries – following in the footsteps of the Europeans and Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. But this strategy was anathema to the new fashion developed in the United States – Monetarism. It replaced the theory of John Maynard Keynes. He had asserted that way out of recession was for the government to start spending in order to put money into private-sector pockets and get demand for goods and services up and running again. Instead, Africa’s economies were handed over to the World Bank and their governments were forced to spend only what they earned. Only those that followed these structural adjustmentpolicies(SAPs) were to be given aid. This forced governments to cut expenditure and privatise assets. Their subsidised fledgling industries were closed down andtheir markets opened up to western goods. Western companies moved in to extract Africa’s mineral and natural resources. The medicine was bitter and often applied crudely with little regard for side effects.
The fourth wave is coming. It may be just ripples now but with those ripples are opportunities to build a wave. Despite the hardship caused by structural adjustment,African economies began to grow but they have not provided jobs for the millions of young Africans leaving education. The World Bank admits that although there will be a slight rise in Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) this year, it will only affect the levels of poverty very slightly.
Under such circumstances you might expect African leaders to be hamstrung, unable to develop or manage their economies positively. On the contrary. Recently, Africans have elected a new crop of leaders – realistic and effective – many of them far better at delivering better livelihoods than their predecessors.
Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, is a good example. He has launched the biggest shake up of the country since 1991 when the rebel Tigrayan army defeated the government of Mengistu Hailemariam. The Tigrayan generals who have held power ever since, seem to have loosened the reins and allowed Abiy Ahmed to carry out radical reform. His most astonishing move was to end the stand-off with Eritrea by conceded the disputed village of Badme, where thousands of Ethiopian troops were killed in a series of battles. Abiy Ahmed asked President Isiais Afwerke for a meeting to draw up a peace treaty. This was an extraordinary move but seems to have been accepted by Eritrea. If this enlightened approach could spread to other parts of Africa, the continent could be transformed.
Next door to Ethiopia, South Sudan seems at last to be making peace. One of the worst conflicts the continent has ever suffered, the war in South Sudan is, in essence, a rivalry between two men. The inability of President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar to share power destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians. But now one of the most resource-rich countries on the continent may find peace begin to develop.
In South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa has replaced Jacob Zuma, a populist President who had little understanding of economics and allowed corruption to thrive. He has inherited a South Africa that was barely keeping its head above water. He understands the needs and complexities of South Africa and its economy having been both a trade union leader and a successful businessman. Whether he can bully or nudge the country into shape remains to be seen.
In Angola Eduardo dos Santos has finally stepped down after almost 40 years in power. He squandered the country’s oil resources and allowed corruption to flourish. He tried to ensure his daughter succeeded him but she was pushed aside and replaced by Joao Laurenco, a party hack who had been close to Dos Santos. So far he seems to be more dynamic and has pledged to reform the oil industry which has been the cess pit of vast corruption and financial outflows.
Zimbabwe’s soft coup and the subsequent shake up is bewildering. Whether Zimbabweans will vote for the man who was Mugabe’s enforcer and butcher is unclear so far. The army carried out the soft coup but will they also keep Emerson Mnangagwa in power? Will they allow the weak and disorganised opposition to win the election? Or will the election be free and fair and enable Zimbabwe to begin to rebuild? So far so good.
In Nigeria devolution has allowed the better-led parts of Nigeria to forge ahead with their own policies. The aged president, Mamadou Buhari, tries to hold the country back but the dynamic governors more than make up for this. If it could elect a president who understood the modern world and how it works, Nigeria could once again lead the continent.
Cote d’Ivoire seems to have sorted out its regional and religious division after a nasty civil war in 2011 and now has one of the most successful economies in Africa.
I should also mention Rwanda. Despite the remarkable urban development, its extremely tight political control suggests that all is not happy beneath the surface. The economic achievements under Paul Kagame have come at a cost to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which has suffered military incursions and the looting of much of its immense resources. DRC is one huge gap at the vast heart of Africa. Parts of it work well but lack of leadership and unbridled corruption have crippled it since 1960s.
Finally Senegal is the one country in Africa that has remained stable, peaceful and progressive since gaining Independence in 1960. It had a brilliant start with the peaceful, intellectual Leopold Sengor and has always held elections and never had a coup. It hardly ever gets mentioned.
I do not know whether Africa’s leaders are all on the same wave-length and see the opportunities in a continent-wide perspective. But there is now an opportunity – a moment where wars have either ended or died down – when they could ride the fourth wave to take Africa to a higher plane, economically and politically and fulfil that potential that has always been there but has been so illusive. Will this forth wave roll in major change in Africa and take the continent in a new direction?