Africa’s past is not its future
How continent can chart its own course
AFRICA is a vast and abundant continent. Roughly 10 times the size of India and three times the size of China, it is home to nearly 18% of the world’s population and roughly 30% of its mineral resources.
With an average per capita GDP of just over US$2 000, however, it remains the poorest continent by far. Of the 46 countries the United Nations has rated as the least developed, 35 are African. More than three-quarters of the continent’s population lives in countries where life expectancy, income, and education are well below the global mean. Africa, as the Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan (pictured) once said, “is a rich continent with many, many poor people.”
We Africans are poor for a variety of reasons—some that are of others’ making and some that are of our own. Slavery, colonialism, and the Cold War caused serious damage to African societies and economies, much of which endures. Exclusion from Western-dominated institutions of global governance does still more harm today. But the blame for Africa’s failures cannot be pinned on external forces alone.
The continent’s colonial history has another enduring insidious legacy: it gives some African leaders, and too many of Africa’s people, an excuse for not getting their own houses in order and for continuing to blame the West. Misrule, coups, and corruption have hindered progress and wasted many years since independence some 60 years ago. Yet we continue to point the finger at others.
Almost every nation suffered some form of colonialism or exploitation at some point. Unfortunately, that is our history as a human race. But most countries have picked themselves up and moved on. We Africans need to look forward, not backward, and take responsibility for and ownership of our destiny.
That means continuing to fight for better governance, the rule of law, and decent leadership. But our friends in the West must also display more integrity and less hypocrisy. They must give Africa a bigger voice in institutions of global governance, improve the governance of these institutions and of multinational corporations, and close the regulatory loopholes that enable massive illicit financial flows out of the continent.
Africa needs allies in its development, not accomplices to its plunder.
Ghosts of colonialism
Undoubtedly, colonial rule did lasting damage to Africa. European powers drew casual and haphazard borders, mostly disregarding ethnic, geographic, and historical realities. Some countries, such as the Gambia and Lesotho, came to exist mostly or entirely within other countries. Many others ended up landlocked and therefore dependent on their neighbours for access to the sea.
Most of the fragile countries of the Sahel belong to that category: Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, and Niger. Each is a far cry from the great Mali Empire, which from the 13th to the 16th century ruled over territory spanning nine present-day African countries. Wisely, African countries agreed at independence to freeze these artificial borders to avoid conflict, but the seeds of instability had already been planted.
Take the continent’s agricultural sector. The colonial powers built economies to serve their own needs, focusing on the export of resources—whether wood, cotton, cocoa, tea, or coffee. These priorities go some way toward explaining the difficulties many African countries still have in ensuring their own food security. Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal, for example, still grow crops for export on more than half of their cultivable land while importing food to feed their people. The war in Ukraine has suddenly highlighted the fact that most African countries are net importers of wheat, with Russia and Ukraine being the largest providers.
The infrastructure Africa inherited at independence was similarly tailored to an extractive economy. Most of the roads and railways that colonial powers built were designed to take raw commodities to ports. Partly as a result, African countries remain poorly connected to one another. It is easier to move goods from Nigeria to Kenya by sea than by road or rail and cheaper to move goods from West Africa to China than from West Africa to East Africa.
The blame for Africa’s failures cannot be pinned on external forces alone.
Governance was another area that colonial powers neglected. Rather than building inclusive democratic institutions, they fostered brittle, hierarchical ones. Independence brought colorful new flags, proud national anthems, and rewarding jobs for presidents and those in their inner circles but not much else. The weak institutions of the newly independent African nations were no match for the wave of military coups that took place in the wake of independence. During the 1960s and 1970s, Africa weathered 82 coup attempts—one every 89 days, on average. Roughly half of them succeeded.
Constitutional and civilian rule remains tenuous in much of the continent today. West Africa in particular has seen a resurgence of military coups over the last five years and an erosion of the rule of law. There and in other parts of Africa, an over-reliance on military cooperation with foreign powers such as France, Russia, and the United States seems to have encouraged national security forces to turn their guns on their fellow citizens to grab power instead of protecting their populations and borders and fighting terrorists.
The malign influence of foreign powers waned but did not cease with the end of colonialism. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both treated Africa as an arena for competition over resources, military outposts, and votes at the United Nations. Both often made common cause with dictators and kleptocrats, downplaying the importance of good governance and ignoring human rights abuses.
Although the World Bank channeled funds toward the United States’ allies on the continent, few of these countries achieved much in the way of development. Conditional foreign aid became a driving force in African economic policy, fostering economic dependence on the West rather than the much-needed continental integration.
It was not a coincidence, then, that Africa’s governance began to improve after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Many countries transitioned to multiparty elections, adopting new constitutions that included presidential term limits. According to the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance, published in 2021 by the foundation that I run, more than 60 percent of Africa’s population now lives in a country where overall governance has improved over the last decade.
The lost decades
As destructive and painful as it was, Africa’s troubled history of colonialism and Cold War meddling cannot explain all its current woes. Missed opportunities, bad governance, corruption, and even crimes committed by African leaders have also held the continent back. Among the costliest errors was the mismanagement of vast natural resource endowments. Oil and diamond producers in particular have provided a powerful example of what not to do with natural resources— looting nation wealth, growing overly reliant on mineral “rents,” while allowing other sectors of the economy to waste away.
Before oil was discovered and developed in Nigeria, the country had a successful agricultural sector, producing enough food to feed its population until the outbreak of civil war in 1967. Now, Nigeria is a major importer of food. With its vast copper, cobalt, and oil endowments, the Democratic Republic of Congo should be one of the richest countries in the world. Instead, it is poor, fragile, and home to one of the UN’s largest peacekeeping forces, now a permanent feature on the landscape there.
By contrast, Botswana stands out as a role model for the continent, with its healthy democracy and strong governance. Botswana was blessed with natural resources—diamonds, mainly—but it also had great leaders: President Ketumile Masire, who led the country from 1980 to 1998, and President Festus Mogae, who succeeded Masire and stepped down after his second five-year term in 2008. Both served their people instead of themselves. Thanks in part to their good governance, Botswana has gone from one of the poorest countries in continental sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1960s to the region’s highest ranked on the Human Development Index, which measures overall social and economic development.
Good governance and decent leadership have unfortunately been in short supply. Africa had its fair share of strongmen and dictators in the second half of the twentieth century. They looted their countries, enriched their families and friends, and curtailed the rights of their citizens. The most notorious leaders fueled the perception that the whole continent was corrupt, prompting serious investors to shun Africa and a swarm of corrupt businesspeople to descend on the continent. The harm inflicted was grievous and is still being felt today.
The end of the Cold War was a boon to Africa, as dictators lost much of their value to the victorious West. The United States and Europe started to pay more attention to corruption, human rights, and democracy—in most cases, making aid contingent on improvements in these areas. But by then, the continent had already lost half a century to corruption and misrule.
Still frozen out
Today, Africa still exists at the margins of the global order, largely excluded from international institutions and treated as a basket case to be fixed. The current multilateral system, created at the end of World War II, does not effectively represent or serve the present world. Almost everyone agrees with this assessment, but the international community keeps kicking the can down the road. A fresh look at the mission and the governance of institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund is overdue.
Take the UN Security Council, which has been rendered impotent by the veto powers of its five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. None of these countries is keen to give up its unfair privileges, even if that means crippling a vital institution. All can act with impunity and offer protection to their client states, allowing atrocities to go unpunished and shielding dictators in Africa and elsewhere from scrutiny. This state of global governance is unacceptable.
The G-7 and G-20 groups of major economies are also failing Africa. Understandably, no African countries are members of the former and just one, South Africa, is included in the latter. But unlike the European Union, the African Union does not get a seat at either table. It is occasionally invited to dinner but never into the meeting room. This treatment has enormous consequences for Africa, which has little say in the setting of international standards that affect everything from fighting corruption to financing development to mitigating the effects of climate change. Debates and decisions on these and other issues would be fairer and more efficient if the G-7 and G-20 did not simply dictate to Africa but treated it as an equal partner.
Africans have been asking for more cooperation from the West as they seek to battle corruption. After all, funds stolen from the continent nearly always end up in Western banks. North American and European countries need to establish public registries that identify those who own or benefit from secretive, anonymous companies. Yet they have resisted doing so, despite regularly haranguing Africans about corruption. Now, Western countries are getting a small taste of their own medicine as they struggle to trace the assets of Russian oligarchs.
Illicit financial flows out of Africa, mispricing of exports and imports, and the shifting of profits within multinational companies cost African countries more than US$88 billion every year between 2008 and 2017, according to one estimate by the United Nations. That exceeds the US$52 billion in annual international aid the continent received during those years, raising the question of who was funding whom. Western countries must act swiftly to close the tax and banking loopholes that are bleeding the African continent dry.
The West should also take Africa’s financing needs more seriously. African countries struggle to borrow in international financial markets to fund their development needs or deal with crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and food insecurity. Countries that manage to borrow must pay punitive interest rates, reaching as high as ten percent. It is little wonder that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, even as Western officials lecture Africans about inequality.
International credit-rating agencies should ask themselves whether their assessments are driven by prejudice or reality. Often, when they rate African economies as subinvestment grade, thereby depriving them of much-needed financing or forcing them to borrow at ruinous rates, they actually engineer the failures they predict. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs recently pointed out, Ghana’s debt-to-GDP ratio of 83.5% is lower than Greece’s (206.7%) and Portugal’s (130.8%). Yet Moody’s rated Ghana several notches below both European countries in 2021, leading creditors to overestimate the risk of lending to Ghana’s government and to charge an interest rate of nine percent on ten-year bonds. Greece and Portugal, meanwhile, paid just 1.3% and 0.4%, respectively. The result was predictable: in its 2021 review of Ghana’s debt sustainability, the IMF warned that the country was at high risk of debt distress and vulnerable to shocks, and in August 2022, Fitch downgraded the country’s credit rating to CCC, indicating “substantial risks.”
Finally, Western countries should take full responsibility for their contribution to the climate crisis and stop asking African nations to sacrifice their development goals to fix a problem they did not create.
North Americans still generate 14 tonnes of carbon emissions per person every year, on average, while Europeans and Chinese generate seven tons. Africans, by contrast, emit just 1.1 tonnes. And yet Western countries still resist the obvious solution: putting a price on emissions and letting the market forces they worship play their role. Instead, they focus on reaching carbon neutrality through “energy sobriety” or encouraging people to change their lifestyles and behaviors to reduce emissions. This is a reasonable approach for developed countries that are high emitters, but it makes no sense for low emitters whose populations still lack basic access to energy.
For Africa to live up to its potential, its leaders and citizens must address their own challenges and shortcomings. First and foremost, Africa must speed up its economic integration. Yes, the continent’s arbitrary division into 54 countries is unhelpful. But it is irreversible, so the best and only way forward is to deepen the economic and political links between them. The African Union has done much to knit the continent closer together. For one thing, the continental free trade agreement the union brokered in 2018 promises to reduce barriers to trade and perhaps one day create the largest free trade area in the world. But this monumental commitment has yet to be fully and effectively implemented.
For years, I have asked Africans a simple question: If China, whose population is only slightly larger than that of Africa, had been divided into 54 countries with different regulations and currencies, could it have developed into the superpower it is today? For markets, size matters, so Africans must buy from and sell to each other. That is the only way to develop the continent’s economy and attract foreign capital. African countries should come together to establish a pan-African stock exchange, which would encourage investment and improve African companies’ access to finance.
Greater integration and market size will spur the development of African industries, including those producing pharmaceuticals and vaccines. The lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic are clear. In emergencies, countries rediscover nationalism, erect trade barriers, and seek to put their own people first. African countries still import almost 95% of the medicinal and pharmaceutical goods they consume—and 99% of the routine vaccines. In times of global crisis, they cannot depend on the kindness of others to ensure that their people will remain healthy and secure.
In that sense, the pandemic has been useful. In April 2021, the African Union and the African Center for Disease Control set a goal of producing 60 percent of the vaccines the continent will need by 2040. With the help of the European Union, Africa is now working to establish or strengthen six manufacturing hubs on the continent—in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa. Assuming African governments are willing to make the necessary investments, including in public health, these initiatives will improve the continent’s health security and potentially create jobs.
Africa is still treated as a basket case.
Similar efforts to become more self-reliant are needed in the realm of food security, as evidenced by the disruptions to crucial grain and fertilizer exports to Africa caused by the war in Ukraine. For too long, Africa has disregarded its agricultural sector, allowing its crop yields to fall far below the global average. This in some ways is good news because it means there is enormous potential for improvement. Africa still has more arable land than the rest of the world combined, which is also good news. But the continent must reexamine its agricultural model, still mostly based on subsistence farming. African governments should prioritise production systems that benefit their own people first. Exports should continue, of course, but in a way that does not jeopardize food security.
African states must move up the value chain in agriculture and in other industries such as mining.
Otherwise, they will continue to earn relatively low fees for raw materials while other countries reap much larger rewards from exporting final products sold at prices many Africans cannot afford. It is unacceptable that an African farmer receives a few cents for the cocoa used to make a chocolate bar that sells for US$4 in the West.
Then there is the need for power. Some 600 million people in Africa continue to live without access to electricity. Without power, forget about development, education, and health. It has not helped that some well-meaning countries and development finance institutions have pushed to end funding for oil and gas projects in Africa and elsewhere. None of them seem to have thought of the millions of African women and children who have gotten sick or died from breathing fumes from unclean cooking fuels. Western countries are now scrambling for access to African gas to offset the loss of access to Russian gas, but many still don’t want Africans to develop such resources for their own use.
Africa is already doing well when it comes to green energy. Twenty-two African countries currently rely on renewables such as hydropower and geothermal as their main source of electricity. But renewables alone cannot meet the enormous and growing need for energy across Africa. To bridge that gap, while of course speeding up the development of renewable energy, Africa must be able to tap its natural gas endowments. This will require African governments and their partners to commit resources to upgrade and scale up gas storage, transportation, and distribution. Without such investment, Africa will not be able to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals or the African Union’s Agenda 2063 development goals.
Last but not least, demographics. Africans love to brag about their youthful population and the many advantages it confers, including a strong labor force, a growing market, dynamism, and an innovative spirit. But the so-called demographic dividend is a double-edged sword, paying off only if young people are educated and trained to succeed in the twenty-first-century economy. Unemployment among African youth is high and rising, which poses a risk to the stability of African countries and other countries as well. Unemployed youth who have lost hope often opt to migrate illegally and sometimes join criminal or terrorist groups. African governments must create an environment for them to succeed on their own continent,
expanding access to power, building needed infrastructure, and strengthening governance and the rule of law. But they must also improve access to family planning and make it less taboo. If population growth outpaces economic growth, as it does in many African countries, our people will continue to move backward instead of forward.
A way up?
To meet all these challenges, Africa needs better governance and better elected leaders. We Africans need to stop complaining about a past we can do nothing to change and start focusing on the future we can own. We need to look forward, work on our development, and rely on ourselves. Only we are responsible for our future and that of our children.
We hope that Western countries will also improve their governance, be more honest and inclusive in their dealings with Africa, and appreciate the depth of mistrust their past misbehavior and current hypocrisy has created. There are promising signs that both sides are starting to talk to each other rather than past each other. In February, Senegalese President Macky Sall, chair of the African Union; French President Emmanuel Macron, chair of the European Union; and European Council President Charles Michel hosted the sixth European Union–African Union summit in Brussels. Instead of the endless speeches by heads of state that so often eat up all the available time at international summits, this meeting featured a series of substantive and interactive roundtables focused on vital, often contentious issues such as security, health, finance, migration, and agriculture. Both the African and the European leaders committed to equal partnership and better governance. Let us hope both sides implement these commitments so that one day we can look back on this sixth summit as a new beginning.
About the writer: Mo Ibrahim is founder and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and co-founder and co-chair of the Africa-Europe Foundation. A Sudanese-born entrepreneur, he founded the telecommunications company Celtel in 1998.–Foreign Affairs.