How realistic is the risk of political upheaval in Africa and what can be done about it?
Two weeks ago, I was in Nairobi, Kenya to attend a conference on Africa’s political risk profile. The moderator of the first session posed four questions for discussion: Is stability more important than freedom? Is the raw material for the Arab Spring available in Africa? Has the Arab Spring changed the political risk profile of Africa and how? How do you invest in Africa in the context of crony capitalism? These were challenging questions whose answers depend as much on the objective conditions on our continent as on the attitudes and agenda of any analyst.
Are the objective conditions for an Arab Spring present in Africa? Yes and no. By the spring of 2011, Arab nations had sustained economic growth for almost two decades, had invested heavily in education, facilitated the penetration of modern communication technology like mobile phones and internet, but were facing a youth bulge, increasing joblessness among the youths and social and political frustrations among their middle class. In many ways, these conditions exist in Africa today in varying degrees.
However, the existence of the right structural conditions does not automatically create mass uprisings. You need agency (leaders or demagogues and political organisation) to generate an uprising. Structural conditions are social dynamite; leadership and organisation, the detonator. Hence, popular discontent needs to find or produce organised political expression for it to lead to revolution.
Now, the right structural conditions do not automatically produce agency i.e. the demand for revolution does not inevitably produce the supply of leaders and political organisations to guide it. Sometimes, popular discontent can generate political agitation and disturbance. But without organised political expression and effective leadership, mass insurrection would be little more than mob action. Mobs don’t build things; they destroy them. Of course mob anger can create the right incentives for people with leadership and organisational skills to join and guide it purposefully towards a particular political objective. But this is not automatic.
The definitive issue is actually political adaptation. Revolutions tend to ignite in countries with inflexible political institutions. Some political systems are very rigid. Technological changes tend to lead to economic dynamism, which tends to produce new social forces. These begin to make demands upon the political system largely aimed at expanding participation. The stability of any political system facing new demands from emergent social forces will always depend on its flexibility to accommodate them.
This was the challenge facing the Ancient regime in France in 1789 and Tsarist Russia in 1917. Both these systems had become archaic relative to the structural transformation taking place in their societies. Their survival depended on their ability to adapt – a lesson from the United Kingdom. The conditions in France and Britain in 1789 were almost similar. However, the major difference was in their political institutions; the UK system was flexible, a factor that allowed it to give concessions to the demands of new and emergent social forces. Political flexibility mitigated pressure for revolution in UK while inflexibility did the opposite in France.
It seems the Arab-Spring is less likely in Africa because political systems are fairly flexible. We have multi-party political systems. Regardless of their one million and one imperfections, the systems provide a minimum level of political participation and a large dose of contestation. In some countries, power changes from ruling to opposition party – Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, Zambia etc. This allows them to accommodate new demands. Therefore, even though most countries on our continent are facing the same structural imperatives as the regimes in the Arab world, revolution is less likely. This is not because of lack of leaders and organisations but because there is space for accommodating emergent demands from new social forces.
Africa’s political risk profile is a product of both objective conditions obtaining on our continent and existing biases and prejudices among observers. I talked to an equity fund manager in London just before going to Nairobi. She told me that if a fund manager invested in ten projects in China and seven went burst, he/she could easily retain their job. If he/she invested in ten projects in Africa and three went burst, he/she is likely to lose their job. The reason is obvious: investing in China is seen as the right thing to do. So the risks are accepted. Investment in Africa is seen as a wrong decision. Any slight mistake is punished severely.
The point is that in discussing Africa’s political risk profile, we cannot ignore the centrality of the prejudices of the observer. These prejudices are generated by our own dysfunctions over the decades – so they are not pulled out of thin air. But they are worsened by how we African elites articulate them and thereby help feed the monster of prejudice that hangs around our continent’s neck. For example, crony capitalism is rampant in East Asia and China. But it has not stopped the evolution of dynamic economies. It is still rampant in most of Africa, yet our continent is the second fastest growing region on the planet after China.
Because most of Africa has sustained growth for two decades now, investors are beginning to take it seriously as a destination for investment. And because of the emergence of China and India as exporters of investment capital, Africa is beginning to see more investors from them. China and India do not have the deeply entrenched prejudices about Africa of Western Europe and its offshoots in North America, Australia and New Zeeland. Finally, the crisis of the Eurozone, coupled with sluggish growth in the United States, is making investors look for new areas to invest their money. Africa now has a real chance, let us not waste it.