As disenchantment with neoliberal democracy, arrested economic growth and a new wave of military coups spreads across the continent, Africa’s immediate future looks grim. However, Don Flynn says we might actually be seeing the ground being cleared for a renewal of the struggle for independence and social progress.
The spate of coups across Africa – there have been nine in West Africa, Central Africa and the Sahel region since 2020 – has raised the question as to whether democracy has run its course across the continent.
African countries were supposed to have outgrown their tendency towards collapse into civil strife in the first decade of the new millennium when the plague of ruinous wars across the continent appeared to have come to an end. Proponents of neoliberal economic theory attributed this to the achievement of their goal in integrating African economies into global markets where they could export the goods and services in which they had a comparative advantage and attract foreign direct investment (FDI).
The route to this end was brutal: the World Bank’s structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) compelled African governments to revise their post-independence ambitions to provide health care, education and clean water to citizens and instead make these services conditional on the payment of fees. Forms of local culture that promoted social solidarity were recast as “services” which functioned as commodities to be traded on open markets. The intention was to reduce state debt as the driver of economic development and replace it with a fantasy of competitive enterprise which would lift populations out of poverty.
SAPs record across the continent have been almost universally dismal. Health care systems in particular were stripped to the bone and proved inadequate in dealing with pandemics, ranging from malaria to HIV, which have ravaged African countries. Rather than reversing problems arising from chronic public debt, by the beginning of the 2000s the SAPs had led to a 400% increase in liabilities leaving sub-Saharan Africa with a higher debt as percentage of GNP than any other major Third World region. African countries also lost out in efforts to attract FDI. In an epoch in which world FDI per capita inflow increased by five times, Africa’s share grew less than three times, widening the gap even more between the continent’s relative development and other regions of the planet.
Primary commodity boom
If anything appeared to be working in Africa’s favour during this period, it was a boom in prices for the primary commodities which the continent had in abundance. Goods include crude oil, coal, copper or iron ore, rough diamonds, and wheat, coffee beans and cotton and other agricultural products. These leave African countries in an unrefined state and are sold to transnational companies based in the Global North at the prices dictated by the purchasers – a process known as unequal exchange. During periods of price boom the exporting countries appear to be doing well and making progress with respect to GDP growth and development. This was the situation during the early years of the new millennium when the most fortunate countries were reporting growth rates regularly in the regions of 5-7% per annum.
These years encouraged the view that a corner had been turned and the chronic poverty of the continent might begin to be alleviated. The task of securing whatever FDI was on offer seemed to depend on civilian governments being in place as well as stability across civil society and the rule of law. Peace was brokered in civil wars that had ravaged a number of countries and military regimes stepped back in handovers regulated by popular elections. The question was, would this new set of circumstances prove to be sustainable over a longer period?
The UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Africa reviewed the boom years in a report published in 2016. This pointed to structural features of the continent’s predicament which cast dependence on primary commodity price booms in a negative light. The years of GDP growth had failed to generate the sort of investment in capital goods that African countries most need to increase their manufacturing capacity. This meant that the bulk of value of a primary commodity was captured by the countries that could refine the product to the point where it was ready for consumption. The example of coffee was recently cited by President Museveni of Uganda in a meeting with President Putin in which he set out the sense of injustice felt by many Africans in relation to the inequalities of world trade:
“The global business for coffee is worth $460 billion. That is the value of the coffee business in the world. But of those $460 billion the coffee producing countries of the whole world share only $25 billion and Africa shares only $2.4 billion out of $460 billion.”
Critics of Africa are quick to attribute the fault to the political class of the continent for its failure to invest the profits made in boom years in increased manufacturing capacity. It is a convenient argument for people who want to make the most of allegations of a supposed flawed African character which is particularly susceptible to corruption. The UNDP report urges a more balanced approach. In its analysis the problem lies in the inherent tendency of economies producing primary commodities to revert to rent seeking rather than long-term investment in development. The volatility of world commodity prices means that booms are always shadowed by busts. Transaction costs increase these increases because resources have to move between sectors and investment programmes are abandoned when funds dry up. Crucially, young people who have invested in education lose opportunities for work experience and fall back to low productivity petty trading as a means to survive.
This is the background to the African predicament today. The false dawn of the early 2000s has come to an end and the ideologies that it promoted, of hard work being rewarded by growing prosperity and greater security, have proven false. Young Africa seems to be left with two options – either join the rush to migrate or consider routes to achieve radical change. What we see at the moment – with the scramble for the limited opportunities for low paid work in the Global North, and also the turbulence of mass movements for democratic change as seen in Sudan and other countries – are attempts to move in both of these directions at once.
Desire for change
Under the heading of “change”, Africa is also active in the diplomatic realm, seeing what better deals might be available from international partners not hitherto tainted with colonial and neocolonial exploitation, such as China and Russia. For the former, the superficial attractions of Beijing’s belt-and-road strategy are likely to offer only a different form of debt trap, with exposure to exactly the same risks of penury if GDP growth rates fall below the 5 per cent mark. The Russian offer, extended courtesy of the Wagner Group, is attractive only to the elites and would-be elites who see their power being maintained by police state terror.
The conventional form of democracy which flowed at a sluggish rate across the continent back in the days when neoliberalism was proclaimed as a progressive force for good, has far fewer enthusiasts in African countries today. The mood is switching in the direction of wanting change once again. There are varieties of that on offer and the prognosis for the immediate future is likely to be one of disputes and tensions as the alternatives are worked through. The hope has to be that young Africa will return to something more like the moods of the Africa of the 1950s and 60s, when the defeat of colonialism and the establishment of independent nationhood was the foundation for an authentic African democracy, which had the eradication of poverty, equality and development as its ideals.