Demographically and economically, Africa is well poised for success. But it needs to find new forms of growth and governance – and an end to bloody conflict – to realize its potential.
PARIS – The final genocide of the 20th century, in Rwanda, during which over 800,000 people were killed, did nothing to end the extreme violence on the African continent. Twenty years later, in the young state of South Sudan and in the failed state of the Central African Republic (CAR), massacres have become a feature of daily life.
The French army has not succeeded in ending the deadly fights between Christian and Muslim militias in CAR. And hiding behind the “ethnic cleansing” expression is a more complex and diverse reality: tribal and religious conflicts, not to mention political rivalry.
But though people are slaughtering each other in Africa more than anywhere else on the planet, the continent has paradoxically become a place of hope. Today there is a real divorce between the perpetuation of extreme violence and the demographic, economic, and, to some extent, political and social evolution of Africa.
It’s fair to wonder whether a long four-century chapter is closing right before our eyes. Since the 17th century, Africa has been nothing but an object of world history. First, its population was treated like little more than raw material necessary to the economic growth of other continents. Then its territories were divided, often in the most random manner, by colonial powers who hid their appetite for riches and conquest behind nobler motivations. Again, in the 20th century, Africa offered first the blood of its men, then the solution of its territories to Europe, as the old continent was committing suicide with two world wars.
Demographically and economically, Africa is back
Now, as the 21st century begins, Africa is in the spotlight of history once more. Demographically, with more than 1 billion inhabitants and about 18% of the world’s population, Africa has regained the place it occupied at the beginning of the 16th century. Back then, the 100 million people living in Africa represented 20% of the world’s population. By the mid-19th century, after more than 200 years of slavery, only 95 million people (9% of the global population) remained on the continent, while the rest of the world was undergoing massive demographic growth.
As for the economy, sub-Saharan countries have all been enjoying growth of 5% to 6% on average for the last 10 years. And as all the BRICS countries — China excepted — see their economic growth slow down dramatically, it seems only natural to turn to the continent that possesses unique energetic and mineral resources both in quantity and quality.
And yet, this ray of hope is probably not enough to make Africa the equivalent of what Asia was 20 or 30 years ago. That’s because of both cultural and political reasons — if not psychological.
What happened in Asia was the historical continuity of great empires, China being the most spectacular example. In addition, there is a long history of rivalry between Asian powers, and this has been a decisive factor in the continent’s success and economic development. This healthy competition/emulation between Japan, China and South Korea — which Western Europe certainly lacked after World War II — has no equivalent in Africa. Nigeria is not the equivalent of China, and post-Mandela South Africa is a disappointment.
Africa must find in the gaze of the rest of the world a new self-confidence. Who knows today what its great empires and kingdoms were like? Who actually is aware that before the discovery of South American gold and silver in the 16th century, Africa was to the whole planet the continent of gold? Slavery, the worst possible wound, marked a break in African history. The numbers alone — between 10 and 15 million direct victims, the equivalent of AIDS mortality — are not sufficient to comprehend the destructive impact that this had on African confidence.
One may criticize China’s cynicism, but let us not forget that it is China more than any other country that, at the end of the 20th century, contributed to transform the image that Africa had of itself. But even though Asia, via China, put Africa back on the right track in terms of confidence, that does not mean the continent is becoming the “new Asia.”
Now, still in the early stages of the 21st century, it may be that world history is writing itself in Africa. This time, it is the Africans themselves who hold in their hands the future of their continent. In itself, Africa concentrates and symbolizes all the fears and hopes of humanity: global warming, desertification leading to migration, pandemic risks but also the hope that new forms of growth, and perhaps of governance, can be found.