African reset: will Covid-19 bring change?

It is tempting to hope that ordinary people will rise up and demand change. But we are more likely to see poverty exacerbated

Remi Adekoya

No place needs a post-pandemic reset as badly as sub-Saharan Africa. Even before coronavirus pummelled its economy, it was the only global region where the number of people living in extreme poverty was rising instead of falling. In 2018, an estimated 413 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day, twice as many as in South Asia, the next poorest region. Now projected to enter a recession, its first in 25 years, the stakes have never been higher for a region whose population is expected to double to 2 billion by 2050.

An unending expansion of suffering is not a sustainable social model. The region needs radical change. It is difficult to imagine a better moment to hit reset than now. Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst-run part of the world. It needs more transparent, accountable and responsible governments. It needs an enabling environment for businesses domestic and foreign. Building a successful economy is not a walk in the park, but nor is it rocket science. Most of the globe has figured it out. Of the world’s 218 economies, 140 have achieved either “high-income” or “upper middle-income” status, according to World Bank measures. This means two-thirds of them have a gross national income per capita above $3,995. It is a minority of countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, that persist in failure.

But while the worry coronavirus has brought the world presents a real opportunity to fast-track widespread reforms in the region, experience suggests this is unlikely to happen. Aside from a few reform-minded outliers such as Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, Africa’s leaders rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The 1980s were supposed to be the reform years following a commodity crash that left the continent broke and recognisant of how reliant it had been on the export of its resources. Little came of that. Meanwhile, its eye-catching economic growth at the beginning of this century offered opportunities to put in place infrastructure the region needed to join the modern world—things taken for granted elsewhere, such as 24-hour electricity and clean water. Instead, most of the gains were frittered away, just like during the boom years of the 1970s.

But is there a chance, perhaps, of ordinary Africans rising up and demanding changes to the way their societies are run? Some predict widespread social unrest, even revolution erupting across the globe once post-pandemic economic pain sets in fully. Considering the region’s abundance of unemployed youths living in fragile states run by corrupt governments, objective realities should render sub-Saharan Africa fertile ground for revolutionary movements akin to those which emerged during the Arab Spring.

It is, however, unlikely we will see significant social unrest, much less revolution, in the region anytime soon. Sadly, we are more likely to witness a significant exacerbation of Africa’s existing mass poverty and gross inequalities. Its tiny rich class will emerge from this less affluent, but still wealthy. Its small and weak middle-class will emerge even smaller and weaker. Its majority poor will emerge barely breathing. In effect, the power dynamics will swing even further in favour of the wealthy elites and ruling classes. Their capacity to dominate their societies will increase as power and influence become cheaper to buy in an environment of scarce resources. While there is expected to be a spike in crime and insecurity as well as the occasional demonstration, the nature of most African societies means their elites need not fear any organised resistance representing any genuine threat.

Take the case of Nigeria—home to the largest number of extremely poor people in the world as well as some of the highest-paid lawmakers, a candidate for reform if any. It is, however, too fractured a society to produce mass movements of the kind seen in relatively homogenous Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. Even during the colonial era when British overlords served as a uniting enemy, Nigeria’s pro-independence movement was plagued by ethnic tensions.

In 1953, at the peak of the independence struggle, Ahmadu Bello, the political leader of northern Nigeria, described Britain’s creation of the country as a “mistake” because its peoples were too different from each other. African intellectuals like to talk about how colonialism “divided” Africans. But what it actually did was force together thousands of previously autonomous communities, city-states and kingdoms into the 54 “nation states” that now constitute Africa. For its own ends, it attempted to fast-track a historical process of nation-state creation that had taken Europe centuries of warfare and inter-mingling to conclude.

When Nigeria became independent in 1960, it was “a state without a nation”, observed historians Toyin Falola and Matthew Heaton in A History of Nigeria. So were most other newly-independent African states. Westerners are conditioned by their own history and demographics to factor in cultural differences where they see racial differences, but they vastly
under-appreciate how significantly citizens of the same African state can differ from each other in cultural outlook.

Africa is the most ethnically diverse continent in the world. This entails vast differences in cultural norms and worldviews. Some 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria alone. That’s 500 different ways of interpreting the world. In comparison, some 120 languages are spoken throughout the European continent. It is no coincidence that 60 years after independence, Nigeria is still very much a state without a nation, held together by a retrogressive institutionalised identity politics.

This is exemplified in the concept of the “rotating presidency”. There is an informal, but adhered to, agreement among Nigeria’s political class that the country’s powerful presidency rotates between the north and south of the country every eight years or two presidential terms. When current president Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner, completes his second term in 2023, it will be the south’s “turn” to produce the next head of state. Only after the primary criteria of region of origin has been fulfilled will details of policy, personality or experience be taken into consideration. The rotating presidency reflects the deep mistrust and fear of domination by the Other that drives Nigeria’s national politics and that of many other African states.

And Nigeria’s north-south fault line is merely the most encompassing divide; there are numerous further ethnic sub-divisions in each region of the country. The mutual mistrust makes it easy for Nigeria’s ruling class to prevent any movement from gaining the momentum it would need to seriously challenge the status quo. They know which buttons to push to provoke mutual suspicion among the diverse groups they govern. A Nigerian uprising would most likely end up provoked into inter-ethnic violence that could easily plunge the country into a full-blown civil war.

Another reason revolutionary changes in the region are unlikely is the readiness of most of African governments to deploy violence in quelling any significant oppositional challenges. While it is difficult to imagine any European government ordering its security forces to open fire on demonstrating citizens, most African leaders wouldn’t balk at such a decision.

In the five years Buhari, a former general, has been Nigeria’s president, the country’s security forces have killed hundreds of protesting civilians on multiple occasions. And none of these protests even represented a serious threat to the status quo. Amnesty International observed that 2019 in Africa “was marked by widespread repression of dissent . . . in over 20 countries, people were denied their right to peaceful protest, including through unlawful bans, use of excessive force, harassment and arbitrary arrests”.

Although mass protests in Sudan did prise Omar al-Bashir from his three-decade-long grip on power last year, it remains to be seen whether there will be genuine change in the way that country is run or whether, like in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, the new government will not differ much from the old. Whatever the case, the knowledge that their governments will likely respond ruthlessly if they rise against them is enough to dissuade most Africans from seriously considering any revolutionary action. There are still no unthinkables for most African governments. Nowhere do black lives matter less than in Africa.

So for now the power dynamics do not allow for any realistic expectations of real socioeconomic change in sub-Saharan Africa. It is more likely most people will rather focus their energies on trying to survive. In shattered economies, this will mean most of the population working for even less than they used to. It will mean even greater inequality. It will mean even more power in the hands of Africa’s ruling classes and elites. It will mean setbacks to genuine democratisation processes. There will come a tipping point in Africa’s history when power loses its grip on the population, but that moment is likely to be a while away.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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