Africa for optimists: 2012 in review

By Simon Allison 14 December 2012

It’s been another good year in Africa, with the continent providing plenty of reasons to be cheerful. SIMON ALLISON picks his five favourite stories from 2012.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the AU

It was a long, messy fight to get her there, but eventually South Africa’s no-holds-barred campaign to put its favourite daughter (and Jacob Zuma’s favourite ex-wife) Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the head of the African Union Commission succeeded. We were highly critical of the brash, bumbling manner in which South African and SADC diplomats went about this campaign, but we can’t argue with the result: NDZ is good for Africa, for a couple of reasons.

First, she’s good at what she does. Her time in government was characterised by her uncanny knack for turning round lumbering, inefficient bureaucracies, and she’s now got the chance to turn round the most lumbering of them all. Already, journalists have noticed the superficial improvements: press statements are regularly released and disseminated, while calls to the AU’s Addis headquarters are answered. There’s still lots of work to be done, however. The commission is plagued by a chronic inability to attract good staff, resulting in dozens of unfilled posts, while accounting is hazy and spending not always transparent. Even more challenging is the diplomatic role that NDZ is required to play. As she’s discovering with Mali, where she has been a vocal presence in talks about how to handle the situation, her powers in this area are limited, and it’s a delicate line she walks between appeasing the member states who appointed her and pushing for progressive solutions.

Second, it’s had to undersell the significance of Africa’s symbolic leader being a woman. So many African societies are patriarchal, and since independence African leadership on almost every level has been an exclusive boys’ club. This is changing rapidly. With Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Malawi’s Joyce Banda the continent has two strong female presidents, and many women are making their mark at cabinet level (think Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in Nigeria). Remarkably, during the bitter power struggle that preceded her election, the fact of NDZ’s gender was far less an issue than her nationality. In fact, it was not an issue at all, which is exactly as it should be.

Smooth transitions of power

With a couple of notable blips, this has been an overwhelmingly good year for smooth political transitions and democratic elections.

Not that it’s been easy. Four presidents died in office, catapulting their countries into a dangerous power vacuum from which they weren’t expected to recover quickly. With the exception of Guinea-Bissau, the affected countries handled the transition exceptionally well. In Malawi, deputy president Joyce Banda took charge as per the constitutional succession, potential violence defused by the explicit backing of the army. In Ghana, deputy president John Mahama took over, as per the constitutional succession, and did a good enough job to be returned to Osu Castle in the recent presidential elections. In Ethiopia, deputy prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn was sworn into office; although rumours swirled about a power struggle going on behind the scenes, the end result was again as per the constitutional succession.

It wasn’t only in times of crisis that African countries exceeded the admittedly very low expectations of the rest of the world. Momentous polls in Lesotho and Senegal saw long-serving leaders thrown out of power by the people, while the incumbents in both Ghana and Sierra Leone earned themselves second terms. In the latter two cases, opposition parties were unhappy with the result, but chose to fight their corner in court rather than on the streets.

Sure, it wasn’t all plain sailing – elections in the Arab Spring countries were fraught, while Mali was denied the chance to hold its planned vote at all. It’s safe to say, however, that peaceful, democratic transitions of power in Africa have become unexceptional, while instances of vote-rigging and coups d’état are rarer than ever.


We fully admit this might be pre-emptive and should be riddled with giant caveats, but we can’t help but get a little excited about Somalia’s future. At the beginning of 2012, this role model for failed states the world over was a mess: Al Shabaab controlled vast swathes of territory, pirates operated with impunity from its shores, and up to six African countries had sent in troops to fight for the corrupt, ineffectual central government.

At the end of 2012, it’s still a mess, but there is – maybe, just maybe – light at the end of the tunnel. The African Union invasion eventually dislodged Al Shabaab from all its major strongholds, including the lucrative port city of Kismayo. The Islamist militant group didn’t go quietly, but nor did they implement the Armageddon-esque terror threats so beloved of their PR department (yes, they have one of those; they’re even on Twitter).

The pirate threat has decreased dramatically, from 31 hijackings in 2011 to just four this year. That is an astonishing statistic, and is thanks to a better-coordinated international response and increased security measures from ship owners.

And in Mogadishu, there’s a new broom in the bullet-ridden presidential palace in the form of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, an academic and civil rights campaigner turned politician who was voted in by the country’s shiny new parliament. Granted, there’s a long way to go before this is in any way representative (the parliament was appointed rather than elected), but it’s a start; and the new man in charge has a reputation as “an honest man of peace and pragmatism”, according to the Economist.

These are all tentative, precarious improvements. But Somalia has to start rebuilding somewhere, and this seems as promising a position as any.

Africa’s economic outlook

If there’s one place you want to be in a global financial crisis, it’s Africa. The continent has weathered the economic downturn exceptionally well, and foreign investors are now saying what we knew all along: there’s money to be made here, and plenty of it. The statistics are impressive, with average national growth rates of around 6% and combined GDP predicted to hit $2.6 trillion by 2020. “Many countries on the African continent have achieved great progress in stabilizing their economies and consolidating their rates of growth,” said George Abed, Africa director of the Institute for International Finance. “What is remarkable about this outcome is that it has been achieved during a period of unprecedented global financial turbulence. There are challenges ahead for Africa, but the trend of solid growth of the past decade looks sustainable over the medium term.”

Not everyone buys this happy narrative. Patrick Bond, senior professor for development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, warned the Daily Maverick that the encouraging economic statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt. GDP figures, for example, make for much grimmer reading once resource depletion is taken into account; in this analysis, Africa’s growth is actually negative.

Either way, it’s nice to see that, for once, African economies are being taken seriously by the outside world. The positive perceptions will inevitably lead to a flood of foreign investment, which, managed wisely, could spur the continent on to even swifter growth. Managed unwisely, however, and much of the revenue generated by investment in Africa will head straight out again, leaving Africa with not much to show for its economic boom except some impressive but misleading statistics.


Flying around Africa is not cheap. Quite the opposite, in fact: per kilometre flown, African passengers pay more to fly than anyone else in the world. To blame are extortionate airport taxes, absurd airspace restrictions and fierce, often misguided protection of inefficient national carriers.

Clearly, what this continent needs is a proper budget airline, one which would slash ticket prices and force other airlines to get their act together. Easier said than done, however. There have been several attempts to date, all of which have failed.

The newest outfit taking on this challenge is Fastjet, launched in Tanzania last month to much fanfare. Two things make Fastjet different from its predecessors. First, it is pursuing an aggressive expansion strategy which might just give it the critical mass it needs to make its business model work. Fastjet already owns Fly540, and plans to convert Fly540’s routes in East and West Africa to reflect its low-cost, no-frills appeal; it’s also in the process of snapping up bankrupt 1Time’s operations from the liquidators. Second, it has real experience: the team behind Fastjet are the same team behind Europe’s Easyjet, and if they can make it work in Europe’s cut-throat aviation sector than the challenges of Africa should be a breeze.

Aviation analysts are cautiously optimistic about Fastjet’s chances of success. So are we – although, with some tickets selling for as little as R450, there may be an element of wishful thinking in this. DM

  • It hasn’t all been good news for Africa, of course; for a round-up of the year’s most depressing stories, see Simon Allison’s ‘Africa for pessimists’. 

Photo: South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma addresses the media during the leaders meeting at the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa July 15, 2012.  REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri


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