Why the continent cannot be written off economically or politically.

Should Africa be written off as a political and economic failure? Is applauding it as any sort of success story just pie in the sky?

Anyone interested in Africa, as I have been for more than 50 years, will undoubtedly recognise these as quite typical questions — and will probably react to them, as I do, with gloom. Why? Because the fact is that a great deal of the attempts to assess Africa fails before it begins. The reason is simple: There is a depressing tendency to approach the subject from a position of profound ignorance. For many commentators, for example, Africa is seen as if it were a simple unity, rather than as a vast continent with some 54 separate, widely varied, countries.

Against this background I was surprised, and delighted, to find a recent edition of The Observer devoting a supplement to the African continent, the focus of which was positive. The positive approach did not mean that everything was portrayed as perfect. Rather, it was summed up as follows: “The countries of Africa are undergoing enormous change. Though democracy is still far from universal, civil war is in decline, technology is spreading rapidly — and business is booming.”

In context

There is an important matter of context which goes a long way to explain why in so many quarters judgments about Africa have tended to be so limited. It needs to be remembered that until not much more than half a century ago nearly all the countries of sub-Saharan Africa were colonial territories. The first of these to move from colonial status to independence was Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, and Ghana’s year of independence was 1957. (To add a further piece of context, it is worth noting that India’s independence came only 10 years before that.)

A related point is that, when the colonial era began to end, the process took place at breakneck speed, over the next seven or eight years. The key year in this respect was 1960, in which 13 French colonies, three British and one Belgian all moved to independence.

It was not surprising that, with this speed of change, there was little chance to assess its results coolly and calmly. Nor was much effort made — again not surprisingly — to try to look at what was happening so rapidly in Africa in a much wider historical context.

I will give an example of what I mean. In my lifetime, we have had in Europe the period of Nazi rule in Germany, General Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, Mussolini’s in Italy, and dictatorships also in Greece and Portugal, to say nothing of the Soviet Union. It is easy to forget that, and to assume that Europe has always been composed of mature democracies — failing to note that maturity does not come overnight, and even when it has arrived it is not perfect.

Maturity has not come overnight to Africa, and it is still developing.

That seems to me to be a good background against which to make some observations, in no particular order. In many countries in Africa there are growing middle classes. In many, the role of women is getting stronger. The economies of many African countries are growing stronger. Changing governments through elections, rather than the seizing of power, has become more common.

All these, I suggest, are positive points. In making them, I am not, of course, suggesting that everything is perfect. It manifestly is not, and many things are still wrong. What I am suggesting is that there have been important changes since the colonial era, and they continue — and many (but of course not all) of them have been positive.

I have tried to give some sense of the size of the continent of Africa. In reaching conclusions, it is extremely important to recognise not only the rapid time scale of the move from colonial rule to independence, but also the huge variety of cultural, social and economic attributes of different African countries.

Does trying to reach balanced and informed judgments matter? No one will be surprised, given my long-standing interest in African affairs, that I say that in my view, it does matter. I do strongly believe, however, that the importance of trying to reach good judgments is not merely personal to me. The fact is that the continent is on the move economically, and what happens there over the next few decades is likely to have influence well beyond its own boundaries.

Email: bill.kirkman@gmail.com