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Storm Clouds in Africa

Guest: Dr. Jakkie Cilliers, founder of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and author of multiple books including Africa First!: Igniting A Growth Revolution.

In just over five decades, one of three people in the world will be African. But, after considerable progress over the past two decades, storm clouds are now on the horizon. What’s next for this vast, diverse continent?

By 2050, Africa’s population will double; by 2100 one of three people on the globe will be African. While it’s hard to generalize, much of Africa had seen a lot of progress over the past twenty years. Economic growth and manufacturing expanded. Infrastructure was built. Social services such as education and healthcare improved. Millions were pulled out of poverty in countries like Kenya and Tanzania in the East, and Nigeria and Ivory Coast in the West. However, new threats such as COVID-19 and soaring food prices because of the Russia-Ukraine War could be a new tipping point for millions on the brink of extreme poverty. Polls show that a majority of Africa’s citizens believe that the future will be worse than the present, opening the door to instability and civil unrest.

What is the outlook for this gigantic and complex continent? That’s the question that our guest and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) have spent years researching. Cilliers wrote a book called Africa First!: Igniting A Growth Revolution. What is a growth revolution? Cilliers explained, “Things are improving in Africa, particularly since the 1990s, but slower than improvements in the rest of the world. While things are improving at a general level – as much as one can generalize on 55 countries – Africa’s falling further and further behind. What we do in our work is look at what needs to be done to change that growing gap. So, the growth revolution of Africa is really to model realistic forecasts on what is the impact of [11 sectoral interventions].”

Even with a growing demographic and abundant natural resources, many countries in Africa have had trouble reaching their full potential. Cilliers elaborated, “Africa’s challenges with regard to growth are in a sense rooted in […] the way in which the African state was created, […] You have an imposed state, and that imposed framework was held in place by the Cold War. […] But because you have an imposed state formation process in Africa, this process of creating national identities – countries- takes years.”

Despite challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic. For example, the new African Free Trade Agreement. We asked our guest, “how important is it?” Cilliers answered, “It is hugely important. Our modeling would indicate that the full implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area can deliver more rapid poverty reduction and improvements in average income than any other intervention. The reason is simple. That if you need larger markets so that African countries can trade with one another because by trading with one another, they improve the value composition of their trade. They, in other words, go up the manufacturing ladder.”

We turned to a particularly complex region – the Sahel, a region plagued by violent Islamic extremist groups and climate change. What is going on there? Cilliers explained, “It’s important to understand that the spread of Islamic radicalism and violent Islamic radicalism in Africa is very much a result of NATO intervention in Libya, the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan. […] It was dealt a hand by the international community, depending on how far you want to go back on slavery, colonialism, imperialism, […] and then most recently the war on terror. But the reality is that only Africans can solve that problem. The solution to this is not foreign intervention. The solution is Africans trying to find a way of dealing with this themselves, whether that is through negotiation through violence, probably a combination of a variety of measures.”

Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked about the state of democracy in different African countries when so much of the world is seeing democratic backsliding. Cilliers responded, “Democracy accompanies development. As countries become richer, they become more democratic. Now, if you measure relative democracy, […] Africa is actually more democratic than you would expect, given levels of education and levels of GDP per capita. So, we have kind of a democratic surplus in Africa. Strange term, but it is true.”

Our conversation – as it often does – turned to China. We asked what our guest thought about the massive role of Chinese investment in recent decades. Cilliers explained, “It’s generally been a force for good. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner as a single country. The European Union remains our largest trading partner as a block. Africa has got a huge infrastructure deficit and lack of investment. The Chinese to a large extent are coming to the party and delivering upon that. The [West’s] concern is that the example of China will draw down democracy, that it sets the wrong example, but what Africa wants, it wants to stay out of the East-West fight.”

So why has the US private sector neglected African investments, while Chinese investment has expanded so rapidly? Cilliers responded, “It’s very evident and I think it’s because the US interest is driven by the private sector and the private sector follows profit. And the irony of all of this is that the highest return on investment globally is in Africa. But we suffer from a bad rap. We suffer from you know, the rating agencies looking at Africa and they will give us a lower rating than any country in, for example, Latin America. Whereas objectively, if you look at the risk yes, there’s risk everywhere, but even your stable African countries suffer from this. The Chinese don’t need to go to a rating agency because it’s largely government money.”

In her social justice and youth-themed segment of the show, Téa Ivanovic asked about the youth brain drain across the African Continent. She asked, “It seems to be a bit of a chicken and egg problem: governments need to create employment and growth opportunities, but these dire economic conditions and security concerns are preventing that from happening. So, who’s the chicken, and what’s the egg here?” Our guest responded, “That is just the reality of a world where educated labor is free to move, poorly educated unskilled labor is not and is creating xenophobia. A large growing young population when they get to a certain level of wealth, become aware of the rest of the world and immigrate or try and leave. And I think that is just almost inevitable. The only way to turn that around is to have greater opportunities domestically than there are internationally. So, turning the chicken and the egg around requires that whichever comes first, that we need to get our own house in order.”

Our guest was clear that Africans need to be the ones solving Africa’s problems. So, we asked, what is the role of the international community – if any –regarding existential threats like climate change? Cilliers explained, “Africa needs the international community. It needs it desperately. In particular, it needs its investment and engagement, and it needs it across the board. […] And we’ve seen generally the criticism that is leveled against development assistance aid is that it helps corrupt governments and so on, but it also alleviates deep-seated poverty in certain instances and helps to build capacity. […Another example is from the] the United Nations. What we’ve seen is that the best recipe for longstanding conflicts is a multinational peacekeeping force that is deployed and that stays in the country for decades.” 

We finished with some broad forecasting. Where is the continent in the decades to come? Cilliers said that in 2050, Africa still won’t be “batting at the right level” given its population size relative to the size of the economy. But it’s not fair to generalize across the continent. Cilliers said,” [Africa] is very diverse. There are seven or eight countries which are highly unstable, and the narrative from them tends to dominate everything. We think that when there’s violence in South Sudan that the entire region is unstable. We don’t recognize that Kenya is probably one of the fastest, most dynamic economies in the world.”

What are some likely future scenarios for African countries? Check out ISS’ recently published forecasts of Africa’s development prospects here. And as always, find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.


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Episode 130