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When will Africa be led by the needs of its people?


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

As the leaders of our continent celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the African Union, I wonder whether they have begun listening to the voices of the African people yet. Just this week, the Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma confirmed that civil society organisations would, for the first time, be denied access to the AU conference Centre during a summit – which makes one think, doesn’t it?

We can conclude that at the heart of Africa’s failure, in the past, to deliver the dreams of Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah for “one continent, one people and one nation” is the leadership’s failure to be guided by the needs of the very people meant to benefit from the collective wealth and power.

So where are we today? What is Africa’s challenge? What happened to the dreams, hopes and vision when the predecessor of the African Union was born five decades ago?

One of the statistics rolled out with great fanfare is the talk of spectacular GDP growth. While there’s no doubt that we have made progress, I wonder when these gains of our African growth strategy will trickle down to the hundreds of millions of people that still eke out their very existence at the edges of our humanity.

Citizens always know better than their leaders what works for them. The main agenda in the past was political liberation from colonialism and Apartheid. The ‘Cold War’ global agenda weakened the Pan-African dream of economic and political integration. The critical question is whether in the next 50 years, the voices of the citizens will determine the African development agenda.

So what are the voices I am hearing, and what their hopes and aspirations?

“You have to listen to me, because I know what is not in your books.” Powerful words from Esther, a smallholding farmer from Malawi, who I met in April this year at a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice in Dublin. The bedrock of the success we look for in Africa, she cut an inspiring figure as she spoke, in her language, to an audience that included luminaries like former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and US Vice-President Al Gore.

Ndidi Nwuneli, a dynamic woman entrepreneur who works with smallholder farmers and founded the Africa Leadership Institute in Lagos, added, “Women are the primary producers of 80% of the food in Africa. But as their crops move across the value chain, there are fewer and fewer women. It is dominated by middlemen who control the value chain to the market.”

Across Africa, from the slums of Kibeira and Khayalitsha to the villages of Turkana and Giyani, far from the ivory towers of our political discourse, I see and hear the rising tide of anger and discontent. Africa is rich. Our people walk on gold, diamonds, oil, platinum. Yet our people are poor, and our mineral wealth has become a curse in itself.

Our natural resources, now estimated at a third of the world’s reserves, power the global economy. But we undervalue our assets. We undervalue ourselves. We have two-thirds of the remaining arable land in the world but our people are hungry. We see a politically explosive trend of large agro-business and foreign governments buying huge tracts of land to meet the food security needs of their own countries and markets.

Communities who have been on the land for generations are displaced, local biodiversity destroyed by mono cropping. It deepens household food insecurity and makes people wage laborers at the mercy of the powerful companies that control the value chain and extract most of the profit. Often these land deals are done in collusion with corrupt political elites and play no meaningful role in tackling poverty and a growing inequality.

A coherent, continent-wide African leadership, policy and incentives would see tens of millions of women small scale farmers lifted out of poverty. I ask Esther what she needs to succeed. “We need a hand up, not a handout. Give us women land ownership, agricultural extension services, finances, water, seeds, energy, and we will make Africa a great continent. We will feed our families and we will satisfy the global search for food security.”

Our challenge is to catch the next global commodity boom and to grow from commodity-exporting economies into realising mutual benefits with our partners. It means that we stop acting as 55 countries, each striking separate deals in a way that weakens our bargaining power as an economic bloc. Instead we need to leverage this wealth to develop our own infrastructure and connect our continent.

And it is not like we have no expertise; in some sectors we have excelled. I remember when we met as African communications ministers in the mid-90s; Africa had fewer phones then than the City of New York or Tokyo. We used state power to shape the policy, regulatory and spectrum management environment to crowd-in private sector investment and harness their expertise and technology. We were able to leapfrog the stages of development from very little or no infrastructure to the most modern digital technologies in the world.

As a result, today we have the fastest growing mobile market in the world, with over 600 million mobile phones. No aid dollars drove this digital revolution. It was innovation, like the game-changing prepaid card and demand for service from users. I see millions, like Esther, the unbanked, who have understood this technology and are using applications like M-Pesa in Kenya to access financial services and to connect to the markets to check the best prices they can get for their crops. Technology is fundamentally changing the world we live in, the nature of work and how we educate ourselves, access health or build livelihoods in the future.

Still, our greatest challenge or opportunity will come from the demographic profile of our population. A billion people live in Africa today. Half our population is under 20 and our “youth bulge” will account for a third of the global youth population in less than three generations. What is the future we are nurturing for our youth when nearly half of them have few skills, no jobs and are unlikely to have the dignity of labour in their lifetime? It is time we changed the education and social environment to create pathways out of poverty towards sustainable livelihoods. Should we not be listening to this generation who are increasingly restless with the failure of our governance regime in Africa?

Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

In Africa, 60 million children, or almost two in five, are stunted. Across this continent, 12 Africans die every minute as a result of hunger and malnutrition.

We know countries may lose 2% to 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) as a result of iron, iodine, and zinc deficiencies. The solutions are so cost-effective; they require political will to be implemented.

Driven by rural poverty and the climate crisis, I see urbanisation is happening at a frightening rate. In Kenya, Kibeira sits like a huge, sprawling mushroom of shacks on the outskirts of Nairobi. It is a teeming, bustling place which is now part of a familiar sight on the African landscape.

Like many of the slums across the world, I see no signs of public investment here. But it holds the potential of migrating people from micro-traders to entrepreneurs. We need to recast the need for education, health, goods and basic services into entrepreneurial opportunities for our people. It is estimated that two-thirds of the African population will live in slums like this by 2050.

The conflicts in Africa are rising, in part driven by our ‘resource curse’ and the increasing competition over scarce resources. A third of our people live in a conflict-ridden country and will never achieve any of the Millennium Development Goals. We know a country that goes through a civil war will take at least 25 years to recover its pre-conflict GDP. In places like the Great Lakes, rape has become an instrument of war. It forces thousands of children into the brutal game of soldiers of war. It breeds warlords who obstruct regional integration in their fiefdoms, and with it our hope of interconnecting and promoting the free movement of goods and people.

How do we exorcise the demon of a predatory nexus of inter-connected political and economic elites and their foreign collaborators, who strangle the success of our continent? A civil society that has a robust and independent programme of action is a prerequisite for democracy. It means the nurturing of a social activism that is fearless and does not act as the conveyor belt of political parties. A civil society that spends less time looking up to donors and writing business plans and producing data irrelevant to the bread-and-butter issues that face grassroots communities.

Mandela once said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Our challenge ahead is to build power that demands accountability and transparency. Political elites understand power; the power to vote them out of office, the power of public protest and demonstrations and the power to remove dictators through the streets. An independent civil society that goes beyond what it is against, but also has a roadmap for where it wants to go – to build a socially inclusive, just future for all citizens. DM


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