Sub-Saharan Africa has been rising rapidly in this century, growing economically at an unprecedentedly rapid pace from 2005 to 2015, with most of its 49 countries participating in a new post-colonial prosperity. But, with China’s own economic surge slipping, India and Japan weak, Europe lagging and North American demand limited, will sub-Saharan Africa stagnate and her prospects deteriorate? Given unexpected additional problems on the near horizon, will Africa’s peoples be able to realize the kinds of social advances that had appeared to be within their reach?
Until very recently, the nations of sub- Saharan Africa were growing economically at an average of five per cent a year, much faster than the rest of the world. A few of its number, especially the petroleum and gas producers, had been rising at even higher, double-digit, rates. But that growth trajectory has now come to a shuddering halt as China’s appetite for oil, iron ore, copper, chrome, the metallic ore coltan and other precious natural resources has slowed substantially. Simultaneously, the formerly high prices for commodities have tumbled, so African and other exporters of primary goods have suffered a double whammy as mines have been shuttered
and pipeline deliveries slowed. The pace of exploration in West and East African waters has also faltered. Even non-Chinese foreign investors have largely taken flight.
Together with the once-avaricious Chinese demand for the spoils of the land and the sea, sub-Saharan Africa’s economic resurgence in this century has been fuelled by stronger governance, greatly enhanced leadership, improved political participation and more thoroughgoing democratic procedures, fewer dictatorships and — despite the continuing civil wars in South Sudan and Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Mali and Nigeria — much-reduced intrastate conflict.
Most of Africa is at peace, and focused more than ever on improving standards of living and increasing educational opportunity and health care. In this century, there has also been a major rise in middle- class thinking and membership. An international opinion survey discovered an emerging embrace of global village values and a distinct move away from the kind of peasant populism that had dominated sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th Century.
Until China slowed, sub-Saharan Africa seemed poised to uplift most of its peoples in a profoundly beneficial manner. More- over, in addition to economic GDP slip- pages to three per cent or less (under one per cent in South Africa’s case), there are major unanticipated barriers to African advancement that could mortgage present and future accomplishments and, conceivably, set back African prospects dramatically.
Climate change is altering rainfall patterns significantly, leading to major droughts this year in southern Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region south of the Sahara. African farming depends on rain; only three per cent of farmers have access to irrigation. That means that when the Intertropical Convergence that governs African climate patterns shifts, the rains on which Africans have long depended vanish, and crops wither. More- over, the rapid melting of the Arctic and Antarctic glaciers will soon cause substantial upwelling sea levels, and the potential flooding of much of coastal West Africa.
If these climatic perils were not sufficient, sub-Saharan Africa, now and for the remainder of this century, is experiencing a huge demographic explosion. Being the most rapidly growing part of the world, sub-Saharan Africa’s one billion people will surge in the next 50 years to two billion and three billion and reach an estimated 3.7 billion in 2100, right behind Asia’s four billion. Based on well-regarded UN Population Division estimates, Nigeria will become the third most populated nation in the world, after India and China. Tanzania, now a mere 75 million people, will soar to 340 million and become the fifth largest country in the world. The Democratic Republic of Congo will hold 212 million and be the eighth largest polity, bigger than Brazil.
Lagos and Kinshasa will be larger and more congested than Cairo and Mexico City, but with much poorer sanitation, fewer roads, serious electricity shortages and a paucity of jobs. Overall, cities will mushroom in sub-Saharan Africa and rural areas will decline from 50 per cent of the total today to 25 per cent in 2100.
Where will the food to feed these new millions come from? How will they be governed? Are current methods of political management adequate? Most of all, can Africa, like Asia, realize a demo- graphic dividend if educational resources are sparse and new employment possibilities cannot keep pace with population growth?
Sub-Saharan Africa is already short of water. Where will the clean water come from to slake the thirst of these new, mostly urban, and mostly unemployed masses? There is little evidence that African governments are thinking today about such near-future problems.
Nor is there sufficient concern about how best to mitigate sub-Saharan Africa’s immense energy shortages. Today, Ottawa’s generating capacity would suffice to power Nigeria; Spain has more avail- able electricity than all of sub-Saharan Africa. Relief from such deficits could come from the dozens of new hydroelectric dams that China is building across the African continent, especially from the massive Grand Renaissance Dam across the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Its output could theoretically power nearly all consumers across middle Africa. But if the rains are sparse, the dams will not fill. Furthermore, there is a major shortage of transmission lines and facilities, and the several existing African grids do not yet interconnect. So those linkages will be a work in progress — someday.
Given abundant sunshine, one would imagine that sub-Saharan Africa was planning solar arrays everywhere. But that is happening experimentally in only a few countries. More solar would be efficient, and so would wind-powered turbines along the coasts, where winds are steady and strong. Only South Africa is advanced in this area, but again with transmission impediments. Rwanda is tapping methane power possibilities from the bottom of Lake Kivu and Kenya is us- ing geo-thermal power from the Rift Valley. All of these initiatives may someday end the “load-shedding” and blackouts that now bedevil consumers — and industrialists — throughout much of sub- Saharan Africa. Until that happy time, electricity deficits will hinder African progress and growth.
The Chinese are building roads and railways to help improve Africa, but sub- Saharan African countries still have en- during infrastructural weaknesses. Paved road mileages are still much less than other continents, on a per-capita basis, and the farmers on whom the urban consumers depend are often distant from arteries of commerce. Sometimes whole countries, such as the Congo, are cut off from their hinterlands by transport failures. Even the cell towers on which mobile telephone customers depend are unreachable and unserviceable, cutting communication.
Education is another Achilles heel. Although most Africans have access to primary school, only 70 per cent or so, and more boys than girls, persist into second- ary school. Only about 30 per cent of girls finish secondary school, and there are places in sub-Saharan African universities for only six per cent of eligible students.
Slowing fertility rates depend in large part on the education of girls through secondary school. That advance is happening too slowly, and, with faltering economies, may further diminish. Further, the Asian demographic dividend occurred on the back of a vast educational upsurge, par- ticularly a rise of technical education. Neither is happening in sub-Saharan Africa, except in prosperous Mauritius.
Although much improved, governance and leadership in most of the sub-Saharan nations may be insufficiently robust to cope with these and other challenges. When China was demanding everything that Africa could dig up and sell, circumstances were less challenging than they are now. Today, all of sub-Saharan Africa struggles to educate and care for its citizens and, critically, to create formal and informal livelihood mechanisms. The middle class is demanding better governance and achieving breakthroughs in some places, but there are also countries, such as Angola, Eritrea, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, where the rule of law is still uncertain and corruption overwhelming. Even South Africa is mired in corruption, thanks to the lamentable performance of its leaders and its ruling African National Congress.
The road ahead is difficult, marred by potholes, and the menders and fixers are mostly asleep, or focused primarily on the transactional governmental business of the moment. If sub-Saharan Africa does not wake up sharply, most of its peoples will be left far behind the rest of the global village. Canadian and American assistance needs to focus, laser-like, on strengthening leadership and decision-making capacity, and on backing the African middle class.
This post first appeared, under the same title, in The Diplomat and International Canada autumn 2016