Seasoned followers of African politics may have raised a sceptical eyebrow at the overwhelming positivity being expressed by speakers at this year’s FT Africa Summit.
Once again jam-packed with Presidents, Ministers, Central Bank Governors, Ambassadors and business chiefs, the clear takeaway as you stepped out of the swanky London venue at dusk was that Africa faced a new dawn of opportunity.
But, are the winds of change really blowing through the continent, and are we genuinely seeing the emergence of a new type of African leader who can push through major reform and economic progress that has so often been talked about but just as often been corrupted away?
Fresh leadership in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Angola certainly warrants a sense of optimism in places that have for years been tied to failed heads of state, ruling parties, and often mind-blowing levels of corruption.
But, there is another factor driving current optimism: Chinese money.
The Chinese are willing to do what it takes to fund the various infrastructure projects and socio-economic plans African leaders might want, in exchange for a regular supply of the commodities needed back home – oil and gas, bauxite, the list goes on.
In the West there is a determination to view this relationship as a potential threat and another form of colonialism. This time via debt trap. Africa’s new leaders seem to strongly disagree. As Ghana’s much praised and cricket loving President Nana Akufo-Addo plainly put it, Ghanaians enter into Chinese agreements with their “eyes wide open”.
This willingness to go all in with China across the continent is also a somewhat forced relationship. Many African leaders express frustration at Europe and the traditional international institutions for their lack of enthusiasm to provide financial support for capital intensive projects. The President of Gabon going so far as to say: “Europe has turned its back on Africa.”
That may be a little unfair but even former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – who popped in for a chat with the FT’s editor – complained that global institutions like the World Bank moved far too slowly and were heavily constrained by bureaucracy. He argued that their conservative approach to Africa, expressed through their preference for offering up long term, 30 year plans for specific developments was not what African leaders (or their people) needed to hear. Meanwhile, “the Chinese turn up the next day with a shovel.”
Of course, there is more to it than that – global bribery legislation and the personal responsibility Western political and business leaders are obliged to accept for anything that might go wrong when operating in Africa, has as much to do with the West’s hesitation as anything else.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether Africa’s leaders really had their eyes wide open when it comes to China, but the current mood music certainly feels upbeat.
Everyone will hope that this new generation of leaders – and those who are not so new – are right. And they may well be. However, the sceptic amongst us will struggle to ignore one African political problem that tends to trump all others: poor governance.
It’s all very well being a popular, smart and charismatic leader, hold democratic elections from time to time, and express that you’re working in the best interest of the people. But, good governance across all the institutions of government remains the key to achieving this. So in reality the measure by which these leaders will be judged by the international community – and indeed whether or not the winds of change have actually swept through Africa – will be if there is a marked uptick in governance standards.
That means committing to values and transparency. Allowing opposition voices to be heard, negotiating and accepting compromise, establishing inclusive and accountable systems, checks and balances, and communicating regularly and openly to the people so they know what you’re doing.
Managing to do all this may prove a far harder task than agreeing fair terms for a new railway with the Chinese. All praise to the leader who can achieve both!