A version of this article appeared in The Daily Maverick on 27 May 2021

I was a 20-year-old political science student when the African Union was formed in June 2002. The AU was to be a revitalised continental governance institution capable of spearheading Africa’s development and integration, replacing the venerable OAU, which had fulfilled its purpose of freeing the continent from colonialism and apartheid.

My imagination was captivated by the idea of African Renaissance championed by then-President Thabo Mbeki, along with many of the leaders who were instrumental in the formation of the AU, such as Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

On Africa month, and as we approach 20 years of the AU in June 2022, it is important to reflect on the state of Africa, and our progress towards building the Africa we want, as articulated in Agenda 2063.

It is impossible to do justice to the state of Africa in this space – Africa is 1.4 billion people living in 55 countries, 5 regions and at varying stages of development – but we can ask three core questions in this moment:

Are we consolidating constitutional, people-centered democracy where servant-leaders govern with the people’s consent, ethically, responsively, and accountably?

Is Africa at peace, such that all Africans enjoy security and full human rights?

Are we on a clear path of accelerated, inclusive and sustainable economic development?

Perhaps it would be useful to explore these questions through the prism of Africa’s five most populous countries: Nigeria (206 million people), Ethiopia (115mn), the Egypt (102mn), Democratic Republic of Congo (90mn) and South Africa (60mn). As many as 41% (~570mn) of Africa’s 1.4 billion people live in just these five countries. These five African giants represent all of the continent’s regions, illustrate its many opportunities and challenges, and are what international relations scholars call pivotal states: those states whose future will profoundly affect their surrounding regions. In other words, as these countries thrive or falter, so will Africa thrive or falter.

Democracy and good governance not yet entrenched

On democratic governance, it must concern us that South Africa is the highest rated country in this group according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) assessed at 66 points out of 100 and 6th highest in Africa (for context, Mauritius ranks 1st of 54 countries measured with 77/100). That we are thought to be the best governed of Africa’s largest states is alarming considering we are coming off a lost decade due to misrule by ruling party elites and state capture, including grand corruption and the weakening of public institutions. We are only beginning to discover the extent of the grand malfeasance through the Zondo Commission which is in its third year of picking through the wreckage.

Nigeria’s governance challenges are well documented, and we will return to these.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria languish ranked between 30th and 34th on the IIAG, while the DRC is ranked 49th, the fifth worst of countries assessed.

Egypt and DRC perform notably poorly on people’s participation and rights. In Egypt, governments are formed with the consent of the military, not the citizenry, which it ruthlessly represses. The DRC’s 2019 election outcome is widely believed to have reflected the choice of former President Joseph Kabila, rather than the will of Congolese voters.

Ethiopia will be holding a national election on June 21, delayed since its original planned date of August 2020. The election is widely seen as a tipping point. As Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar stated bluntly recently, Ethiopia has “never had a democratic political culture”, and “a free and fair election will transform Ethiopia’s ossified authoritarian political culture” regardless of the victor.

Peace and safety for all Africans remains elusive

The AU aspired to silence the guns in Africa by 2020, “ending all wars, civil conflicts, gender-based violence, violent conflict and preventing genocide”. For too long, too many Africans have experienced the horror of arbitrary violence; one struggles to find the words to convey the human tragedy. The ability to ensure peace and security within its borders are one of the core features of a functioning state, as well as precondition for sustainable development.

It is therefore profoundly troubling, that Africa continues to have more active conflicts than any other region of the world. Three of our five pivotal states have ongoing civil conflicts. Nigeria continues to battle Boko Haram (and splinter group Islamic State West African Province) which has become entrenched in the north of the country, and has now spread into neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Observers in the West African giant describe a country “sliding into anarchy”, from #EndSARS to schoolgirls continuing to be kidnapped en masse, while police stations and prisons are attacked. Nigeria, once one of Africa’s most formidable military powers and led by a retired (and battle-hardened) general in President Muhammadu Buhari, appears increasingly impotent in the face of its many security threats.

The DRC is the definition of a fragile state, having never fully controlled its territory. Rebel groups continue to terrorise civilians in the East, part of a complex and toxic mix of meddling neighbors, ethnic fault-lines and profit-driven plunder of the country’s mineral resources. According to Human Rights Watch, armed groups and even government forces “have carried out massacres, kidnappings, sexual violence, recruitment of children… with near total impunity.”

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – a 2019 Nobel Prize Laureate who made waves upon bursting onto the continental scene, viewed as a democratic reformer – is waging war on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a powerful party in the Tigray region which the federal government now views as a terrorist group. Thousands of civilians have died and over two million people have been displaced, amid reports of atrocities including massacres, mass rape and forced famine. According to the UN, the vast majority of Tigray’s six million people need humanitarian assistance.

The Tigray conflict, in which Eritrea has been involved, increases instability in the Horn of Africa. The region hardly needs further instability, with several fragile states and countries with histories of destructive conflict.

That the country which hosts the African Union can unleash this degree of destructive conflict, highlights the AU’s ineffectiveness in maintaining peace and security, as Professor Funmi Olonisakin sharply observed in her Thabo Mbeki Africa Day Lecture on May 25th.

While South Africa is thankfully not at war, our murder rate is among the highest in the world (over 21,000 people murdered annually), with high incidence of gender-based violence.

With regard to armed conflict, Pretoria (and SADC) must help Mozambique resolve the crisis in Cabo Delgado, for the stability of our neighbor and the region as a whole. One hopes our political leadership is not too distracted to play a leadership role by internal battles in the ruling party and our domestic economic woes.

Economic transformation remains painfully slow

Each of our five regional giants must address some core political economy issues to unlock accelerated and inclusive development, with some common themes identifiable. Perhaps the biggest and most important of these are the need to dramatically improve governance, focus on export-led economic policy and liberalisation.

I need not explain to South African readers the cost of corruption and bad governance as measured in lost resources and development momentum. Just this week at the Zondo Commission we caught a glimpse of the sub-total: R50 billion and counting. This is money that could have been used to finance our development by funding social and economic infrastructure, or research and development. Instead it appears to have disappeared into the pockets and foreign bank accounts of a corrupt group of insiders.

This of course is an old story to our Nigerian counterparts which, along with the DRC, exemplify what development scholars call ‘the resource curse’. Nigeria has lost an estimated $400bn in oil revenue to corruption between independence in 1960 and the turn of the century. In 2016, it was reported that the state oil company could not account for $16bn in royalties due to the federal government.

DRC, despite enormous natural resources – an estimated $24 trillion in mineral wealth and the great Congo river, which is powerful enough to power half of Africa if harnessed – is the poorest country of our pivotal states. The country, which is fondly called ‘the heart of Africa’, is the quintessential fragile state, due to political instability, weak institutional capacity and woeful governance.

What these examples illustrate, is that trying to develop your country amid poor governance and rampant corruption, is like trying to sail a boat with large, gaping holes in the hull. It doesn’t work. To catalyse development, our countries will need reformed political cultures, strong institutions, free media, and vigilant, engaged citizens.

And then there is economic policy. While there is no silver bullet to inclusive growth, close study of the experiences of the most successful late-developing countries – the Asian ‘miracles’ including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China among others – shows that organising economic and industrial policy around exporting increasingly sophisticated goods, primarily to the rich world, is the recipe to rapid economic development.

This suggests, that the focus policymakers in Nigeria and South Africa are placing on import substitution is a blind alley. Improving our export competitiveness is a feature of President Ramaphosa’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, but not a clear, apex priority.

Nigeria also faces the challenge of being an oil-dependent economy when oil’s sunset is coming into view. Megatrends such as the post-Covid shift to remote working, and the global car market’s gradual but certain shift to electrical vehicles, presage structurally lower oil prices. Nigeria will no longer be able to paper over political and economic dysfunction with gushing oil revenue. We can only hope the country’s leaders will use the decline of oil as an opportunity to unleash the country’s huge human and entrepreneurial potential through enlightened economic reform. The West African giant has huge untapped export potential in agribusiness, manufacturing and technology.

Finally, while acknowledging the beneficial role developmental states can play, global evidence shows that economic dynamism and job creation are associated with free and competitive markets with smart regulation, high ease of doing business, and state ownership which complements private ownership rather than competing with or replacing it. It is in this light that one hopes Egypt and Ethiopia, where the military and state respectively dominate ownership of many industries, will find their way to liberalisation and reform. Ethiopia has stated its intention to privatise, but is dragging its feet in doing so.

The African century has not yet begun, but there is still time

In conclusion, discussions about our beloved continent tend to take place upon two extremes. One is negative and hopeless, the dysfunctional continent. The other, aiming to offer hope, focuses on progress made – today certainly is better than yesterday – while leaving the fundamental question unanswered: when will Africa complete the transformation from a poor, badly-governed, conflict-prone region to the prosperous, peaceful and stable continent envisioned by our many long-term visions and plans?

While Africa has made great progress in the first two decades of the century, we have not fundamentally changed, raised, our development trajectory. In part 2, I will offer my contributions on how we might do so.