Africa’s Lost Decade

Voters queue utside a opolling station in Isinya, Kenya in 2017. (Photo: Riccardo Gangale / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Across Africa, elections were becoming the norm at the beginning of 2010, averting bloodshed through civil wars and coups. A new era seemed to have begun on the continent. But today, one in three people in Africa live in poverty.

Ten years ago, many African countries experienced economic growth because of the high demand for commodity products, especially from China. As 2010 approached, the continent buckled up for a decade of booming economies that were expected to transform important socio-economic sectors such as education, health, water, sanitation, food security, and jobs. But as the decade ended, that expected improvement of lives remained a distant dream. Today one in three people in Africa live in poverty

The big question is, where did things go wrong? The 2019 African Economic Outlook concedes that the economic growth of the last decade did not translate into jobs and failed to improve living standards. 

The promise of a better tomorrow

When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, it heralded the beginning of citizens standing against poor governance and low living standards. The successful removal of long-time presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011 gave a signal to governments in Africa: that delivering for citizens and building democratic states was no longer an option but a necessity. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, peaceful political transitions had proved possible with successful elections in Guinea, Rwanda, Tanzania and Nigeria. Even in countries where disputed elections had turned violent, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Mediation to form governments of national unity in Kenya and Zimbabwe seemed to be working, creating “African solutions for African problems”. Across Africa, elections were becoming the norm at the beginning of 2010, averting bloodshed through civil wars and coups. A new era seemed to have begun on the continent. 

In its 2011 survey, the Freedom House Report found that there had been improvements in geographic important countries in Africa from “not free” to “partly free” and “free”. It signalled that governments in Africa were moving towards improved governance and improving people’s lives. 

The 2011 Africa Economic Outlook by the Africa Development Bank projected an economic boom for the continent because of the increased need for commodities. Africa’s average growth was expected to accelerate by 5.8% from 3.1 % in 2009. This economic growth was expected to help address poor living standards, poverty, unemployment and assist in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 

But, 10 years later, Africa’s economic growth has brought little improvements to the living standards of many people. The one in three Africans who live in poverty represent 70% of the world’s poorest people, according to the Brookings Institute. Africa’s human development has been improving at a very slow average rate of +0.8 according to the 2019 Ibrahim Governance Index.

Where did the promise of a better tomorrow go?

Two factors can help explain the slow or little progress in improving people’s lives for the last decade at a time Africa was experiencing an economic boom. While other factors exist, poor governance and corruption played a huge part in slowing down human development in Africa.     

The failure to institutionalise effective governance in many African countries kept the promise of improving lives far-fetched. While the majority of African countries enjoyed growth, there are a number of examples where it only benefitted and enriched the elite, not ordinary citizens, due to a lack of accountability mechanisms. Lack of accountability led to the majority of governments not delivering for their people in the last decade. The governance systems continued to be controlled by the political elite and in many African countries, they still refuse to put in place reforms to adequately account for national resources.

For instance, Teodorin Obiang, vice-president of Equatorial Guinea and son of the current president. In 2017 he was found guilty of embezzlement, money laundering, corruption and abuse of public money by a French court. Revenues from natural resources were used to support Obiang’s expensive lifestyle in Paris and build his mansion worth €107-million, with furniture worth over €40-million, with no accountability in his country. Equatorial Guinea ranks 144 out of 189 countries on the 2019 UN Human Development Report

Zimbabwe ranks 150 out of 189 in the same index. In 2018, Global Witness found politically exposed persons (PEP) and government-connected persons, notably the security services, had hidden interests in the country’s multibillion-dollar diamond industry. A 2018 parliamentary enquiry confirmed allegations of billions of dollars of missing diamond money, implicating senior army and intelligence officials.

One can argue that the increased influence of China on the continent encouraged a move towards authoritarian governments that had little regard for being accountable to the people. It was a backslide from the democratic governance promise that many African countries had shown at the beginning of the decade. The Chinese development model seemed to offer a different model for African governments. This new hybrid model, which we saw and still see today across Africa, borrowed “elections” from the democracy manual as a means to acquire and retain power but abandoned accountability. Without accountability, governments failed to respond effectively to the needs of their people or set national agendas that would have improved people’s living standards.

Authoritarian governments that developed in Africa in the last decade failed to self-correct against corruption, a major barrier in transforming people’s lives. The Global Corruption Barometer – Africa Report 2019, found corruption had hampered governments from investing enough in economic and social areas that should have boosted living standards over the last decade. The World Bank identified corruption as having had a disproportionate impact on the poor and most vulnerable in Africa over the last decade. Corruption increased costs and reduced access to services, including health and education.

Where does Africa go from here?

Africa is at a tipping point. The political elite needs to begin to self-correct and invest in areas that will improve people’s lives at an increasing rate. Areas such as health provision have shown tremendous improvements over the last decade at an average rate of +7.6 (2008-2017), according to the 2019 Ibrahim Governance Index. This shows that with the right investments and political will, living standards can be improved. However, improvements in the health sector alone cannot improve people’s living standards without improvements in education, water, sanitation, jobs and food security. These investments require ambitious collective action to be able to respond effectively to people’s needs. 

Every effort must be made to meet corruption at the gate, beginning at the top. The starting point is eliminating corruption in all political parties, public sector and direct funds towards socio-economic projects. Africa’s political elite are groomed, nurtured and elected by political parties. There is an urgent need for political parties to be ethical and be gatekeepers against corrupt leaders. An example is the failure of South Africa’s ruling party – the African National Congress (ANC) to stop former president Jacob Zuma from ascending to power. He has been accused and implicated in the State Capture project. In some instances, political parties have rewarded corrupt leaders and created corrupt cartels. An example is the Nairobi governor Mike Sonko who was arrested on accusations of a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal and unlawful acquisition of property. 

The Economist has noted that Africa will make up the biggest share of the world’s young population by 2100, accounting for 48% of people under 14 years. There is a need for governments to invest in co-leadership with young people. Young people are a source of innovation, entrepreneurship, energy and willingness to advance new technologies. Co-leadership with young people brings a new voice in governance and co-creation of policies that benefit the greater society. This will help to address key social issues such as inequality, social exclusion, productivity and in the long run improve the lives of ordinary people. The current situation is that young people make up less than 2% of people in parliament. 

Governments in Africa must lead the way in creating partnerships that boost technology and innovation. Technology is an integral part of everyone’s life, helping to improve living standards by enhancing the delivery of public services. An example is how technology has improved banking in Africa through mobile payment solutions like M-Pesa in Kenya and Ecocash in Zimbabwe. Today the continent has more than 225 million mobile phones that are yet to be fully utilised to increase the standard of living. Challenges such as drought, infectious diseases, poverty, water shortage and food security that continue to negatively affect Africa can benefit from collective action for technology and innovation. 

Effective governance is imperative if African governments are going to improve the living standards of people. Governments must be intentional in building the necessary institutions, policies and practices that nurture transparency, accountability and participation. Positive examples from Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal and Seychelles need to inspire the continent. The 2018 Ibrahim Governance Index explains that, the overall governance trajectory for Africa has been at an average rate of +1.0 in the last decade. It should be commended that some progress has been made, however slow. There is a need to build on this progress to further improve governance which has had a direct effect on Africa’s failure to leverage on the commodity boom to improve living standards.

Africa’s citizens need to be at the centre of decision-making, policy, legislation and the delivery of public service. Governments need to accept that they will not improve the standards of living without the people themselves who are directly affected. It is imperative that beyond elections, citizens are given space to participate in issues that affect them directly and to hold public officials to account. 

The potential that Africa showed at the beginning of the decade did little to improve people’s lives. Poverty continues to ravage Africa and has led to high levels of emigration from the continent. If Africa is going to transform the lives of people in this new decade, the political elite needs to relinquish power to the citizens, end corruption and co-lead with young people. 

The old and the new challenges that the continent faces today will require ambitious collective action if Africa’s people are to enjoy a better life. DM

Theo Chiviru is Senior Regional Co-ordinator: Africa & Middle East for the Open Government Partnership’s Support Unit. The OGP Support Unit is a small, permanent secretariat that works closely with the OGP’s Steering Committee to advance the goals of the Open Government Partnership.



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