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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>In Africa, the middle classes call for revolution
Saturday, 09 February 2013 15:35

In Africa, the middle classes call for revolution

Written by Richard Dowden
In Africa, the middle classes call for revolution Photo: africanmentor.com


In Africa, the middle classes call for revolution


I had not intended to come back to the Africa Rising debate for a while. But on my recent trip to Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda I was shocked at how angry the young professionals are. These are highly educated, ambitious young men and women who could be found working in the corporate sector anywhere in the world. They should be taking Africa to the Promised Land. Instead, I found them frustrated and furious with many calling for coups and revolutions.


Coming from London where we had been basking in a warm bath of Afro-optimism, I had expected to find a similar feeling in Africa itself. Growth has remained strong despite the economic problems in Europe, Africa’s biggest trading partner, and the prices for the continent’s abundant commodities have remained high. Governance is said to be improving.


There is no doubt that Africa has come a very long way from where it was in the 1980s and 90s. My prime piece of evidence for that is traffic jams. At that time you could drive into Nairobi, Kampala or Johannesburg at any hour and rarely be held up by anything except a red light. Now, you have to leave hours earlier to be sure of getting into the city centre on time. Outside the towns and cities you can now actually drive in a straight line on many roads. As they used to say of the potholes in Uganda: “if you see a man driving in a straight line, you know he must be drunk.”


But the questions about Africa’s dozen years of strong economic growth remain:


Firstly, has Africa’s growth been driven by a long commodity boom or is it now self-sustaining? Where is the large scale manufacturing?


Secondly, has governance really improved? Are the figures about numbers in school, clinics being built, power, water and sanitation delivered true?


Thirdly, are there two Africas? One in a bubble of western-style wealth inhabited by the rich and powerful and another Africa on the other side of the security fence – barefoot, one torn shirt, no money, no prospect of a job – “suffering and smiling” as Afro Beat musician Fela Kuti sang, but with big and increasingly angry eyes.


What shocked me in Lagos, Kampala and Nairobi was the fury of the young middle classes – the very people who are supposed to be driving the new Africa into the 21st Century. They were angry about the poor levels of education, about the lack of electricity, but above all about corruption at the very top. And they see the growing ranks of ill-educated, unemployable young people being churned out of badly-managed state education systems.


In Nigeria, they have all but  given up on the government. But what about people such as Lamido Sanusi, the Governor of the Central Bank, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Finance Minister? I pleaded. Their reply was: Of course, they do what they can but their space is limited. They are not allowed anywhere near the real money – the oil. That, I was told, was managed in complete secrecy by President Goodluck Jonathan and the Vice-President and the oil minister, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke. They are filling a huge war chest so that Jonathan can run for president again in 2015.


Two remarks struck me. One was how utterly out of touch the President is. When street protests broke out a year ago in reaction to the sudden removal of the fuel subsidy, he claimed that people were being paid to demonstrate. My informant pointed out that all the evidence was that people had reacted in spontaneous fury to the government’s removal of the only benefit it delivers to the Nigerian people. Yes, the only one.


One said: “I am extremely optimistic about the future of Nigeria – once there has been a revolution and the current ruling elite is removed”. No one in the room showed dissent or even surprise.


In Uganda, the entire middle class – except for those in government – realises that the country is heading for a crash or a coup. Even President Yoweri Museveni himself warned that if his own ruling party does not stop bickering, the army may step in. That is the most extraordinary statement I have ever heard from an African president. The reaction of many Ugandans (under their breath) was: “Bring it on”.


Museveni has stayed too long and he has cultivated no obvious successor. He is trapped, talking now about installing his deeply unpopular wife and or his son in his place. Twenty seven years ago he did a good job and ruled well (except in the north) and this lasted for a decade. But now he has turned into the very president he criticised so severely as a young man – the one who stays too long in power.


Meanwhile, in Nairobi the population is battening down the hatches for the election next month. Most are optimistic that their new constitution will curtail the worst excesses of the professional politicians, although these people still made up about 80 per cent of the winners in the recent party primaries.


So, where exactly is The New Africa flourishing? Botswana? But it was always successful and never suffered from the political and economic catastrophes that hit Africa in the 20th Century.


The fact is that the five big African countries: Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo are in political turmoil or stasis. None of their governments has the vision or the capacity to position their countries to develop rapidly and sustainably as Indonesia, Malaysia and China have. The good things that are happening in many African countries – with the possible exception of South Africa – are happening in spite of their governments, not because of them.


Secondly, two of the most successful countries in terms of human development – Ethiopia and Rwanda – are dictatorships which allow minimum democracy and freedom of speech. This makes it difficult for Western governments to support them. Aid has been cut to Rwanda and if the next election in Ethiopia is not free and transparent, Western allies and donors may have to turn a blind eye or step away.


Some countries are doing reasonably well: Ghana, Senegal, Namibia and Zambia are OK. Cameroon and Gabon are quiet but not dynamic, still run by small wealthy elites who do not spread the new wealth. Cote d’Ivoire has emerged from its civil war and Somalia may bounce back quickly if the new government is strong enough to crush al-Shabaab and smart enough to manage clan politics. But meanwhile, Mali, a former favourite of western countries, has imploded and both Sudans are in an increasingly bad way. It is hard to imagine Mauritania, Niger and Chad will not also be affected by Islamic militancy.


China has been the main player in Africa’s economic transformation, but how long will it be before Africans react against the growing power and exclusive behaviour of the Chinese and their total disregard for Africa’s environment and culture?   Africa rising? Bits of it yes, but watch out for Africans’ rising anger.



- Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.


Last modified on Saturday, 09 February 2013 15:40

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