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NY Times, Oct. 18 2016
‘Africa Rising’? ‘Africa Reeling’ May Be More Fitting Now
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya — For decades Africa was eager for a new narrative, and
in recent years it got a snappy one.
The Economist published a cover story titled “Africa Rising.” A Texas
business school professor published a book called “Africa Rising.” And
in 2011, The Wall Street Journal ran a series of articles about economic
growth on the continent, and guess what that series was called?
The rise seemed obvious: You could simply stroll around Nairobi, Kenya’s
capital, or many other African capitals, and behold new shopping malls,
new hotels, new solar-powered streetlights, sometimes even new Domino’s
pizzerias, all buoyed by what appeared to be high economic growth rates
sweeping the continent.
For so long Africa had been associated with despair and doom, and now
the quality of life for many Africans was improving. Hundreds of
thousands of Rwandans were getting clean water for the first time. In
Kenya, enrollment in public universities more than doubled from 2007 to
2012. In many countries, life expectancy was increasing, infant
But in recent months, as turmoil has spread across the continent, and
the red-hot economic growth has cooled, this optimistic narrative has
taken a hit. Some analysts are now questioning how profound the growth
“Nothing has changed on the governance front, nothing has changed
structurally,” said Grieve Chelwa, a Zambian economist who is a
postdoctoral fellow at Harvard.
“Africa rising was really good for some crackpot dictators,” he added.
“But in some ways, it was a myth.”
No place exposes the cracks in the “Africa rising” narrative better than
Ethiopia, which had been one of the fastest risers.
Ethiopia is now in flames. Hundreds have been killed during protests
that have convulsed the country.
The government, whose stranglehold on the country is so complete that
not a single opposition politician sits in the 547-seat Parliament,
recently took the drastic step of imposing a state of emergency.
Many of the Ethiopia’s new engines of growth — sugar factories, textile
mills, foreign-owned flower farms — now lie in ashes, burned down in an
At the same time, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, an arm of
the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, just listed Ethiopia as the
fastest growing economy on the continent from 2010 to 2015. The
Democratic Republic of Congo, which is also rapidly sliding toward chaos
— again, was second.
Political turmoil on the one hand, rosy economic prospects on the other.
Can both be true?
“It comes down to how sustained the turmoil is,” said Acha Leke, a
senior partner at McKinsey.
In Ethiopia’s case, the unrest appears to be just beginning. Videos show
demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians chanting
antigovernment slogans, giving a sense of the depth of discontent. The
protesters hail from Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, a population
of more than 60 million, leading many analysts to predict that this is
no passing fad.
The inauguration this month of a cross-border rail line from Addis
Ababa, Ethiopia, to the nation of Djibouti. Credit Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
South Africa, the continent’s most developed nation, has been racked by
waves of unrest. Troops with assault rifles stomp around college
campuses, trying to quell student protests. The country’s currency, the
rand, hovers near a record low.
South Sudan, which topped The Economist’s list in 2013 of the world’s
fastest-growing economies, is now a killing field, the site of one of
Africa’s worst civil wars.
Mr. Leke, one of the authors of the McKinsey report, says that political
turbulence can drag down any economy, and that the growth of recent
years has not been shared among the people nearly as widely as it could
have been. According to a recent report by the African Development Bank,
unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa remains close to 50 percent and is a
“threat to social cohesion.”
As Mr. Leke said, “You can’t eat growth.”
Still, he says, there have been fundamental — and positive — changes on
the continent, like increases in disposable income for many African
Mr. Chelwa, the Zambian economist, has a different view. The
fundamentals of African economies have not changed nearly as much as the
“Africa rising” narrative implied, he said, with Africa still relying
too heavily on the export of raw materials and not enough on industry.
“In Zambia, we import pencils,” he said.
He also points out that some of the fastest-growing economies, like
Ethiopia, Angola and Rwanda, are among the most repressive. These
governments can move ahead with big infrastructure projects that help
drive growth, but at the same time, they leave out many people, creating
In Ethiopia, that resentment seems to be growing by the day.
The trouble started last year when members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic
group, the Oromo, began protesting government land policies. Soon
Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, the Amhara, joined in, and the
protests have now hardened into calls to overthrow the government, which
is led by a small ethnic minority.
If you track the news coming out of Ethiopia, you would not be a fool to
think it is two totally different countries. One day, there is a
triumphant picture of a new electric train, with Chinese conductors
standing next to shiny carriages. (China remains a huge investor in
Ethiopia.) The next, there are grisly images of dead bodies that
witnesses said were people gunned down by the police.
A light-rail station in Addis Ababa this month. A report by the McKinsey
Global Institute, an arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company,
recently listed Ethiopia as the fastest-growing economy in Africa from
2010 to 2015. Credit Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press
Several witnesses said the security forces might be beginning to split,
with some officers taking off their uniforms and joining the protests.
The most recent economic data shows Africa’s growth slowing because of
political instability and a global slump in commodity prices. Morten
Jerven, a Norwegian economic historian who has studied statistics from
across Africa, argues that the growth was never as robust as had been
He said that the economic indicators for many African economies in the
1990s and early 2000s were inaccurate, and that the economic progress in
the last five to 10 years that appeared to have been sudden was, in
In other cases, Mr. Jerven said, African governments made bold economic
assumptions or simply used fake numbers to make themselves look good.
“The narrative had been too rosy,” he said.
Africa Yearning or Africa Struggling might be a more apt
characterization, but neither of these is especially new. Whatever
narrative emerges should include what Mr. Chelwa calls the continent’s
“ghastly inequality,” and the sharp increase in the number of people who
are now better equipped with technology and information and are
demanding more from their governments.
Of course, it is difficult to apply a sweeping narrative to all 54
countries in Africa, where analysts agree that the picture is mixed. For
instance, Rwanda remains stable with new businesses and floods of
tourists while its neighbor Burundi teeters on the edge of chaos.
Some of the same economic factors that investors cite as grounds for
optimism, like Africa’s growing cities, cut both ways. According to Mr.
Jerven, rapid urbanization in Africa often leads to sprawling slums, low
wages and legions of disenfranchised youth.
“All the economic variables for turmoil are there,” he said.
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