What Obama will see in Africa this week

By Jonathan Power

In June,1994, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, spoke at a summit meeting of the Organisation of African States: “We must face squarely that there is something wrong in how we govern ourselves. It must be said that the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.” At last Africa seems to have taken his words of wisdom to heart.

This week President Barack Obama will be in Africa to see for himself how most of Africa over the nine years since that speech has taken the high road.

One by one throughout the 1990s governing elites began to come to their senses. Twenty-five States established multi-party democracies.

Approximately two-thirds of the people of Africa own a mobile phone. In many African countries phone technology is ahead of Europe and North America. Money
can be transferred from the city to an upcountry village. Bills can be paid. In Ghana farmers can receive text messages reporting the price of yams and corn two towns
away and thus find the best market without a middleman. In Kenya residents of small villages can receive texts to say when the perambulating doctor will next be coming. In parts of West Africa nurses are storing patients’ data on phones.

It may be more difficult to build up fast internet penetration on PCs but in some countries 40% of mobile owners are using phones for email and the internet.

Black Africa has come late to the party but a majority of its 48 countries is charging ahead. One advantage of being late is that one can leapfrog over old concepts and tools and get today’s version at cheaper prices than the old. This is true for everything from state of the art well digging equipment to new seeds and mineral mapping.

Welcome to the new Africa! Lions roar and poverty drops! All over infant mortality rates are falling, literacy is improving, longevity is rising and infectious diseases including AIDs are falling steadily, as is malaria.

A number of African countries have oil and valuable minerals sold at good prices. But East Africa, which is the fastest growing region of sub-Saharan Africa, has little of
these- at least until very recently, when there have been significant oil and gas finds. And even landlocked resource-poor Mali is doing well.

Paced by the Chinese and Indians, Western firms are now getting in on the act. Some countries are floating bonds on Western exchanges. African stock markets are flourishing and home grown banks are pushing out their tentacles to small towns whilst making good profits. Micro-lending is on the up, pulling distant villagers into the modern economy.

For the first time a middle class is emerging in significant numbers. Consumer products are in high demand. Motorbikes fill the roads. Good private schools, universities and hospitals are in high demand. The upper middle classes send their children to school and university in Europe and North America. Increasingly these graduates and the some of the rest of the Diaspora are returning to their land of opportunities.

Debt is down – partly thanks to write-offs by Western countries which were prodded into action by Western NGOs. Inflation is falling. Corruption is being tackled even though it is very much an uphill fight. Countries are finding new non-traditional items that they can export- flowers from Kenya and Zimbabwe and out of season vegetables from a number of countries. Intra-African trade has gone up from 6% to 13% of all trade.

High commodity prices for everything from palm oil to cocoa to soya beans have given most countries a boost, yet commodities provide a smaller proportion of exports than
they did a decade ago. Only about one third of Africa’s recent growth is due to commodity exports. A decade ago trade with Brazil, India and China made up only 1% of total trade. Now it is 20%.

When the world economic crisis of 2008 hit Africa, sub-Saharan Africa weathered it. Commodity prices fell but the structure of the reformed African economies was strong
enough to resist the pressure. Banks had been self-disciplined and are not over exposed to the ailments of Western ones.

Growth rates (GDP) are today very encouraging. Last year, according to the International Monetary Fund, the average growth rate for sub-Saharan Africa was a handsome

These are the top-performing ones: Niger is 14%, Angola 9.7%, Mozambique 9%, Sierra Leone 9%, Liberia 9%, Ghana 8.8%, Zambia 7.7%, Nigeria 7.1%,Congo 6.5%, Tanzania 6.4%, Gabon 5.6%, Lesotho 5.2%, Kenya 5.2% and Gambia 5%. Unfortunately, mismanaged South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, is a lowly 2.7%. Nigeria will soon overtake it. Six of the top ten fastest growing countries in the world are African.

Ten years ago The Economist labelled Africa as “The hopeless continent”. Much has changed. But don’t go out in in the bush unaccompanied! The lions are roaring!

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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