There are two very different stories running in parallel in Africa today: one is about the exhilarating growth of most African countries; the second is the perpetual conflict in central Africa, the heart of the continent. Richard Walker discusses.
Why are the DRC, Chad and the Central African Republic going backwards when everybody else is going forward? What is the destabilising effect on neighbouring countries? What do they cost Africa in terms of lost investment and income?
Africa is supposed to be the rising continent – the only region where economies are still growing at 5% plus, where investors are queuing up to buy businesses and government bonds, where, according to many economists, the next few decades should see nothing but growth, improvement, and prosperity. But behind this upbeat view there lurks a dark secret: right in the middle of Africa there is something going very wrong.
All the figures agree: Africa is the continent of the future. Growth is higher than in any other emerging economy region. Natural resources are being discovered at an ever-faster rate – the continent is likely to emerge soon as the world’s biggest reserve of critical industrial resources. Infrastructure is being created faster than ever before. Demographic patterns show that Africa’s human inhabitants are the youngest on the planet, meaning that its economies are likely to grow much faster than those with ageing populations.
So far, so good
And it’s not just the hard data that make Africa look like such a good bet for the future. Things that are more difficult to quantify precisely, like quality of life, satisfaction with economic and educational opportunities, confidence in institutions and the quality of governance, and feelings of security – these are all improving in many countries, and in some cases are being measured by organisations like the World Economic Forum (that maintains annual indicators on things like ease of doing business) or the Ibrahim Foundation, which measures the effectiveness of governance, or the Legatum Institute, which issues an annual Prosperity Report based on surveys of attitudes across Africa. All of these measures seem to suggest that on average, Africa is moving from potential to achievement astonishingly fast.
That is the good news. The bad news is that not all African countries conform to this optimistic average. And right at the heart of Africa, there is a group of countries that do not seem to have yet heard the good news.
There is no mystery about which countries these are: they are Chad, the Central African Republic (or CAR), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (or DRC).
This is a group of three states plagued by conflict and where isolation, poverty and ignorance are the lot of a majority of the population. These are Africa’s three ugly sisters – and leaving aside the troubled history and clouded future of Africa’s neglected heartland, these are the states that also have the ability to export all that is worst about themselves to their neighbours.
A history of conflict amid chronic poverty might be caused by many things. It may be the inheritance of colonial border-drawing, when countries were created without much thought as to whether they could function as single states – yet many African countries have that inheritance, and still seem to prosper.
It may be the lack of resources wealth – yet that has not stopped many states developing without the help of oil or industrial minerals.
It may merely be the accidents of history – after all, Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe, or Côte d’Ivoire without Robert Guéï, or Liberia without Samuel Doe might have been much happier places.