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Why the Slogan 'Africa Rising' Is In Poor Taste And Unhelpful

01/21/2015 07:45 EST | Updated 03/23/2015 05:59 EDT

The main cheerleaders of "Africa Rising" are newspapers, aid agencies, investment banks, and think tanks hailing mostly from outside Africa. After describing Africa as "the hopeless continent" back in May 2000, the Economist rebranded Africa the hopeful continent that now "has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia" on December 3, 2011. The Economist was not yet done. In its February 28, 2013 issue, the paper claimed that "the next ten years will be even better." Time Magazine jumped on the bandwagon of Africa rising in December 3, 2012. And with a catchy title "Sorry, but Africa's Rise Is Real" Charles Robertson, chief economist of Renaissance Capital and Michael Moran, editor in chief of Renaissance Insights, dismissed critics of Africa rising in Foreign Policy of January 11, 2013.

Claiming that "Africa is the growth continent for the 21st century," Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Pascal Lamy, on May 22, 2013, said that "Africans today are more confident and hopeful in the future than ever before." The World Economic Forum held its Africa Rising session on May 8, 2014. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) held its own Africa Rising Conference on May 29, 2014. Africa rising is now something of an industry....

This Africa taking-off celebration generally goes like this: Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has experienced two decades of GDP growth rates of 7 percent or more; this has resulted in impressive advances in economic performance; living standards have improved; and with sharply increasing foreign investments, SSA is in the footsteps of Asia and poised to do even better in the near term. This is Africa's turn to prosper.

The ambiguity of the term "rising" is striking. Advancing to maturity, or merely approaching a different level of development, or perhaps sitting on the runway, as in an aircraft preparing for a take-off? And is the entire SSA sub-continent comprising 47 countries with a population of 960 million rising in one go?

SSA is better assessed in a manner that acknowedges its extreme unevenness, unique histories, and its considerable challenges. These factors combine to show a more nuanced picture, thus shedding light on how different parts of SSA might transform.

Perhaps no two countries tell the complexities and differences in growth and development paths than SSA's oldest states, Ghana and Nigeria, which, respectively attained independence 58 and 55 years ago.

The two have a shared history of political instability that rendered consistent social and economic programs nearly impossible. There were six violent removal of government of the day in Ghana between 1966 and 1981. Nigeria experienced the same number of coup d'etats between 1966 and 1993. That is how the two countries fell victim to strife, corruption, and economic mismanagement well into 1990s when multi-party politics ushered in democratic governance that steadily deepened.

The past two decades saw both Ghana and Nigeria recording impressive GDP growth rates as celebrated in Africa rising. Both achieved middle income status. Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent's largest economy. Its GDP of USD521 billion in 2013 towers over the former number one at USD350 billion GDP.

But behind the GDP statistics, Ghana and Nigeria tell a different story. Ghana's account features consolidation of democratic governance, strengthening of institutions, and building economic infrastructure that provides a foundation for long-term socioeconomic growth and development. Crucially, between 1993 and 2012, political power has peacefully changed hands four times, and between political parties twice, indicating maturity and tolerance. This is a successful democratic transition, an important ingredient in nation-building that still alludes nearly all SSA states.

Ghana can therefore rightly claim to be a model for political and economic reform in SSA. Good education is addressing the task of building its people. Political stability and reforms have resulted in stronger institutions. In December 2013, Ghana's second largest hydroelectric generating plant at Bui with installed capacity of 400 megawatts was commissioned. The country is well on its way to becoming a major power producer that overcomes chronic electricity outages that singularity hinder development across SSA.

Nigeria remains a deeply troubled giant, its economic achievements notwithstanding. After lurching from one military ruler to another, Nigeria achieved a major political milestone in 2014 -- 15 years of uninterrupted democratic governance. But its challenges appear to be multiplying. As Africa's largest oil producer and the world's fourth leading exporter of liquidified natural in 2012, revenues from these sources have not significantly improved lives. Boko Haram terror has worsened matters by wrecking northern Nigeria.

Meanwhile corruption and economic mismanagement continue to make global headlines. Last year Central Bank governor Lamido Sanusi accused the state oil company, Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), of failing to account for USD20 billion in oil revenue. Sadly, the country's infrastructure barely serves even the minimal of households and industries. The 2013 KPMG "Guide to Nigeria's Power Sector" indicates that grid-connected generating plants in operation have "a total installed capacity of 10,396.0 MW and available capacity of 6,056 MW."

This in a population of 167 million, the overwhelming majority of whom depend on traditional biomass for cooking. Ontario Power Generation operates plants that produce over19,000 megawatts of electricity for a population of 13 million.

SSA does not have only one but many stories. Countries such as Tanzania, Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, and Zambia are on a trajectory similar to Ghana's. They are making progress in political and economic reforms at different paces. Former high performers, such as Cote d'Ivoire and Zimbabwe, that took a wrong political turn appear to be on the rebound. In countries led by autocrats who have been in power between two and three decades, such as Angola, Cameroon, Uganda, Sudan, Eritrea, and Equatorial Guinea, systems of patronage supplant institutions. Other states range from fragile, conflict-affected to failed states. Here we can include Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo - Somalia being extreme illustration of this category.

To reduce this complex picture into Africa rising is not only in poor taste but unhelpful.

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