The Africa We Want Is One That Learns From The Past

The Africa We Want Is One That Learns From The Past
ADB Ambassadors meeting , recently held in Kampala, Uganda

AFRICANGLOBE – The 49th Annual Meeting of the African Development Bank has come and gone. Last week, Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, was abuzz with a lot more than the usual activity, when more than 3,000 delegates from around Africa and elsewhere congregated to reflect on the past half-century of the Bank’s existence and look ahead to Africa’s next 50 years.

That the AfDB has been around for roughly the same number of years as many African countries have been independent reminds those who old enough to remember and those who have read the history, of the heady days of the early post-colonial period.

Newly freed from the indignity of being ruled by foreigners, Africans generally believed everything was possible, now that their own compatriots were in charge. With a dedicated financial institution to provide much-needed financing, what could be too difficult to achieve by way of development?

Well, for the most part it took less than 10 years for the euphoria of Independence to turn into a rather long nightmare of one-party political monopoly, military coups and counter-coups, maladministration, and economic mismanagement. And so Africans discovered that in the circumstances a great deal was impossible.

Not even their own development bank could prevent the slide into chaos, economic collapse, and the resulting consignment of millions of Africans to poverty. The tide, however, began to turn when the “international community” decided it was time to do something to save Africa.

In came the World Bank, the IMF, and a host of external experts tied to specific aid programmes, to help fix not only economies, but also the continent’s politics. In came free markets in place of state capitalism, and competitive politics to allow for contests for power to be settled without resort to violence.

It is a fairly familiar story that needs no detailed retelling. Suffice it to say, however, that as things settled down, Africans began to discover how, while they had been busy messing around or being messed around by leaders who had promised a great deal but delivered very little, the Asians, the East Asians at any rate, had been steaming ahead, leaving poverty decisively behind them.

The Asians had done it in only about 30 years. Could the Africans also follow suit within 30 years given the new context? The optimism unleashed by free-market orthodoxy and the end of one-party and military dictatorships had once again made many feel the sky was the limit.

It is nearly 30 years since the onset of structural adjustment and the return to multiparty politics. And yet, arrive we haven’t. At least not yet, possibly not any time soon, despite the “Africa Rising” chorus.

Not that it is all doom and gloom. African economies have been growing rather quickly in recent years, as has investment by both foreign and Africa-based businesses. The middle class, the AfDB has been telling us, is growing too, with profound potential economic and political implications.

Africa’s Natural Resources

At the same time, however, Africa remains poor, with limited capacity for turning its vast natural resources into prosperity generators for its vastly expanding population.

Economies may be growing and GDP rising, but as AfDB president Donald Kaberuka told his audience in Kigali, “You cannot eat GDP.” Much of Africa remains hungry, with millions of people unable to afford two square meals a day.

Meanwhile, their governments persist in paying only lip service to the imperative to invest in agriculture, especially smallholder agriculture, the very sector that undergirded East Asia’s foray into industrialisation.

And as if persistent poverty were not bad enough, violence, much of it born of power monopoly and associated exclusion, remains very much part of the political landscape.

Granted, we have fewer wars, but the few still raging and breaking out every now and then simply augment the picture of Africa as a continent of perennial lawlessness and instability.

Yes, Africa has done rather well in the past two decades or so, but over all, the past 50 years have been decades of much failure and shattered aspirations. In many ways this fact is captured in the theme of the AfDB’s Kigali meeting: “The Next 50 Years: The Africa We Want”. So what is the Africa we want?

I don’t know about you, but the Africa some Africans I know want, and perhaps the African we all need, is one where the lessons of the past 50 years, those from Africa itself and those from, say East Asia, are re-examined through a new pair of lenses, not the old one Africans have been sold by purveyors of instant solutions without regard to history as such, or the history of development.

Consider this, for example: if East Asia built its prosperity on a foundation of highly productive and prosperous smallholder agriculture, why do Africans rush to industrialise against a backdrop of struggling agricultural sectors?

If East Asia privileged political stability over competition and state intervention in the economy over free markets, why do Africans rush for conflict-inducing and potentially destabilising adversarial politics and embrace free-market fundamentalism?


By: Frederick Golooba-Mutebi