IN “AFRICA REVOLUTION SERIES part 3: To Love Beyoncé And Manchester United, Is To Walk Away From The Barricades”, we made the case that after the 2011 Arab Spring, most governments in Africa rushed to bribe the continent’s restless young ones with new youth and enterprise programmes.
The soporific effects of these bribes, we reported, shouldn’t be underestimated because youth revolts in Africa are programmatic – limited to jobs, and opportunities. Also, that while social media has been important in mobilising activism, it is also counter-revolutionary in the way in builds new loyalties. Young people in need of a hero can follow rapper Kanye West or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. There are new tribes too; like Manchester United football club. None of these paths lead to the trenches or regime change.
This doesn’t mean there will be no change, no expansion of democracy, or agitation. They will be there, but will be mostly incrementalist. Also, they will take forms we have not seen before. But the old way, and even the Arab Spring mutation, will be far from the norm.
For example, the classic military coup, where a young Flight Lieutenant like Jerry Rawlings and his buddies in Ghana seize power, shoot the old generals, suspend the constitution and rule without Parliament, can only be an isolated event in Africa today.
That is because over the last 10 to 20 years, thanks in part to western donor money, many African countries have introduced programmes like free universal primary education (UPE). Millions of African children, especially girls, who would never have learnt to read or write, have gone to school.
Now that the people have got used to those mercies, the cost of withdrawing such programmes would be too high even for the most hardened military dictator in Africa. Also, ARVs have saved hundreds of thousands of Africans from certain death from HIV/AIDS. To keep these things going, donor and World Bank money is still necessary. And the best way to keep the cash flowing is to maintain a semblance of civilian rule. Thus in all the recent military coups in Africa, unlike in by gone years, the juntas have been careful to appoint a (powerless) civilian prime minister – the appearances matter. Ask Mali’s junta leader Captain Amadou Aya Sanogo.
This free education, though, has been a disaster in many countries. The products are sub-standard, and one of the unintended consequences is the largest explosion of private education in Africa ever. Parents, desperate to give their children a chance in a highly competitive world, are digging deeper into their pockets to take them to private primary and secondary schools and, lately, universities.
In Uganda, for example, at one point the top 10 best-performing schools in the primary school leaving examinations were all private. The sharp rise in students created by the combination of UPE and the boom in private education, has in turn led to the mushrooming of private universities. I checked, and 25 years ago, state-owned universities were the majority in all African countries except South Africa. Today, when I stopped counting, in more than 55 percent of Africa, private universities outnumbered state ones.
If you paid for your primary school, secondary school, high school, and university from your parents’ money and college loan, your priority upon graduating is finding a job – or starting a business – so you can pay back. Staging demonstrations outside the American embassy and burning the Star-Spangled Banner moves low down on your list of priorities. Declining state-funded education, and the meteoritic rise of private schooling, could almost totally deradicalise Africa’s youth in the next 10 years.
The other thing is that while on the outside several African governments look corrupt and clueless, some game-changing institutional changes have happened, although they are not immediately noticeable. And, paradoxically, it is terrorism that did it.
Until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda upon the United States in New York City and the Washington, D.C. area, there were still quite a few African airports that didn’t have scanners. And there was none taking passengers’ biometric data. The only computers were at the airline check-in desks. Immigration was still very old school; the officer’s eye.
I suspect that none of the Immigration officers owned a personal computer. Today, they have all retrained, are computer literate, and take biometrics. Terrorism forced many such process, technology, and security sector reforms that strengthened otherwise rickety African state structures and better enabled them to hold on to power. A lot of these reform pressures came from or were paid for by the US, and without Al Qaeda, America would never have bothered. Africa’s powermen owe American hawks and Al Qaeda terrorists, a lot of gratitude.
Secondly, because the US and its western allies were militarily overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and chasing down terrorists all over the world, a new political market opened up. What do you in places like Somalia where Al Qaeda was regrouping under the Al Shabaab banner? Sub-contract. And so countries like Uganda entered Somalia to kick out the terrorists and try and restore order, because NATO was happily picking up the tab. Now the military could make money without stealing it from the Treasury.
In a poor country like Burundi, an assignment with its contingent in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, AMISOM, is a much sought after ticket. The allowances the soldiers are paid place them immediately in the Burundi middle class. Many new houses in Burundi today are being built by the country’s officers in AMISOM. The fact that the military could be fed without stealing from the mouths of the poor, changed the political dynamics and risks for governments engaged in peacemaking.
Next, given that US President Barack Obama is travelling in Africa this week, it is the appropriate time to reflect on the role external forces play in political change in Africa. And it starts with how Africa got its independence in the 1960s.
World War II and America had a lot to do with it. Europe was poor, sclerotic, and finally exhausted by World War I and World War II. As Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni argued in respect of Mozambique, the black Africans called to serve in the British forces killed Europeans (Germans, Italians etc.), and with that they lost their fear of the “white man”.
When the dust settled, America had emerged as a superpower, and wanted a leveling of the imperialism market so that it could get a piece of the action that the European powers had monopolised. Europe could not say no to America, which had saved it from fascism. The US was both a generous and vicious power. It dangled the carrot, and wielded the stick.
The coups in Latin America and Africa with America’s name on them can fill many books. It supplied weapons, subversive CIA operatives, name it, to the sides it supported. In short, to get the world to see things your way and play along, you can’t be nice all the time. You also have to be a thug who occasionally breaks legs. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Well, something that challenges that has happened over the last 30 years. China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy, and Africa’s darling. Partly because of its own history of being dominated by foreigners, and also since it is not a multiparty democracy, China is reluctant to bring the American and European model to its relations with Africa. It won’t meddle. It’s happy to turn a blind eye if an African president is murdering his people, as long as he shows up the next day to sign an oil contract with Beijing. In short, China is a status quo power.
The financial crisis then played its devious hand in this equation too. Among the lessons learnt from the financial crisis, and which have populist appeal with voters, is that stricter regulation of banks and businesses is necessary.
However, if these re-regulatory reforms were pushed hard in Africa, all the reforms that reduced governments’ role in their economies, and eventually led to rapid economic growth and the opening up of some democratic space of the last 20 years, would be lost. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Philosophically, though, the financial crisis discredited laissez faire capitalism. So for people seeking change in Africa, the financial crisis was bad – it rehabilitated the role of the state as worthy custodian against greedy CEOs and businessmen.
These factors, and those we explored in the last three series, suggest to me that the conditions for radical political change will be on holiday for the next few years in Africa.