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Kofi Annan and a Tale of Two Africas

June 30, 2011

Kofi Annan speaking at Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre (Photo credit: The Kofi Annan Foundation)

This February, I had the chance to meet Kofi Annan during his visit to Oxford. He had been invited to help celebrate my college’s 700th anniversity. As one of the two politics fellows at Exeter, I had the pleasure of dining with him. (Twice!)

To mark his visit, I was asked to write an article about the talk that he gave at the Sheldonian Theatre for Exon, Exeter College’s alumni magazine.

* * *

When most Westerners think of Africa, the images most likely to spring to mind are those of child soldiers, malnourished children, blood diamonds, pirates, and dictators who have been unwilling to give up power. From colonialism to the Rwandan genocide to the spread of AIDS to the exploitation of the continent’s vast mineral resources, the story of Africa that has been told in the West has usually been one of victimization and despair.

This is a narrative that Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana, has long been familiar with. In his speech at Oxford’s Sheldonian theatre, Annan presented a different Africa: one of economic success and optimism. He made a convincing case that Africa should be seen as “a continent of opportunity— the last emerging investment frontier”.

As an African, you might think that Annan is predisposed to seeing his continent favourably, but here is some compelling evidence (taken directly from his speech) to buttress his case:

  • Real GDP [in Africa] grew by nearly 5% annually between 2000 and 2008 – twice the level of the previous two decades;
  • According to the African Development Bank, 6 African countries are forecast to enjoy growth this year above seven per cent; 15 countries above five per cent; and 27 countries above three per cent;
  • Direct foreign investment has soared from $9 billion in 2000 to $52 billion in 2011;
  • The IMF [predicts] the continent will have as many as seven of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world over the next decade.

These statistics suggest fantastic levels of economic growth spread across the continent.

Annan is not the only one who believes that Africa offers enormous substantial investment opportunities. Stephen Jennings, the CEO of Renaissance Capital, recently gave an insightful talk at Oxford where he pointed out that: “Detailed analysis by the World Bank, IMF, global investment banks and, most recently, McKinsey and Company, means that there is now little debate on the speed, breadth and other key dimensions of Africa’s economic renaissance thus far.”

Yet even as Annan was giving his speech on African’s future of prosperity, the headlines from the continent at the time focused on then-president Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire and his refusal to cede power to his rival Alassane Outtara. That country was subsequently plunged back into a brief, but very bloody civil war. For the citizens of Côte d’Ivoire, Annan’s optimism would have looked wildly misplaced.

And yet these two Africas clearly co-exist. How can the narrative of the optimistic and soon-to-be prosperous Africa be reconciled with that of the dangerous and dysfunctional Africa? Let me offer two possibilities.

The first one comes directly from Annan’s speech: there is enormous variation across Africa’s 53 (soon to be 54) nations. Botswana, with its stable democracy and four decades of impressive economic growth rates receives scant media attention as compared to the Democratic Republic of Congo with its stories of mass rape, coltan looting, and recurring civil war. One problem is that stereotypical news stories about “problems in one country infect opinions of the continent as a whole. Curiously, the reverse is rarely true.” The fact that good news does not make the headlines contributes to our skewed perspective of what Africa is like and how dramatically it has changed, even in the past decade.

But there is also a second explanation that may prove to be more useful for understanding this supposed dichotomy— corruption. Even as the continent has benefited from huge gains in GDP, the distribution of that wealth has accrued disproportionately to African political elites. In many (but not all) cases, these elites abused their political power and made themselves and their family members very rich.

It is these kinds of abuses of power that sow the seeds of future discontent among the young men (and some women) who might consider taking up arms against the government. The utter failure of the state to care for its citizens even while others have grown obscenely wealthy has only perpetuated political instability and insecurity in some cases.

Nigeria is a case in point. It has experienced sustained real GDP growth for at least a decade, but those gains have not been equitably distributed across society. Indeed, a recent New York Times article has suggested that about $22 billion of government oil revenues has vanished into thin air. In the meantime, this fight for resources has led to persistent low-level conflict between well-armed local militia groups and the government in the Niger Delta region.

With new investment coming from China and other high-growth economies, a worldwide commodities boom, and increased political stability, there is ample opportunity for all Africans to benefit from this newfound prosperity. However, the question of whether Africa will ultimately fulfill its potential is best summed up by Annan:

Wherever people live, they want their voice to be heard, their rights respected, and to have a say in how they are governed. They yearn for decent jobs, opportunity and a secure future for their children. They believe that the rule of law must apply to everyone, no matter how powerful… It is this generation – their dynamism, their determination and ambitions – which is, I believe, the major reason for confidence in Africa.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 30, 2011 8:47 pm

    Great Article. I’m surprised that Anna, a supporter of true development, suddenly is wlaking the same orthodoxy as the World Bank and IMF.

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