Dr. Stephen Ellis, Professor in the faculty of social sciences at the Free University of Amsterdam (VU) and Senior Researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, held a lecture on the political state of Africa in occasion of the AWEPA section meeting held at the Dutch Parliament on 18 May 2011.
In his recent book “Season of Rains. Africa in the World” he sustains that Africa’s economic outlook is very promising, but politically this is much more questionable. Business news is relatively confident. Population growth rates are at record high and with one billion African, market opportunities are huge. Africa was relatively insulated from the effects of the financial crisis and growth rates have resumed to 5 per cent in many countries. Yet, this is not leading to better governance.
In the colonial and post-colonial period, there was a general tendency to govern Africa through legal-bureaucratic means typical of nation states. This was the natural reflection of the Western organizational model of society and it was assumed that African political systems would evolve and develop towards the conventional nation state model. Facts today prove that this has not happened. Only few African states such as South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius and possibly Namibia can be considered as conventional states systems on the Western model. Many of the other states are considered either ‘fragile’ or ‘failed’, i.e. states that are unable or unwilling to carry out their basic obligations in the international community and degenerate into conflict, Somalia being the most common example. Other states are considered ‘on the path to development’ face severe governance problems. Many states in Africa are to be considered criminal states with the concrete risk of areas of the continent becoming the dark place of the international system. Today it is estimated that about one quarter of hard drugs are channeled through East and West Africa.
So how should we go about addressing these persisting governance challenges in Africa? There are opportunities for change but a lot depends on the actions and will of African elites. What approach should the development community take? Professor Ellis suggests three main guiding principles in this regard:
- talk to people, increase efforts to understand local realities, an carefully listen to the voice of a vast array of stakeholders so as to capture the interest and needs of the people;
- be pragmatic, see what is feasible and what you can do where, and adapt programs and policies to complex local situations, leaving ‘development ideology’ aside;
- adopt a multi-faceted and comprehensive approach, from a broad ‘development’ perspective rather than a narrow ‘aid’ focus.
From a thematic standpoint, agriculture should take center stage. As much as 80 per cent of idle agricultural land is in Africa and there is a broad consensus that in order to feed the world population Africa will have to play a key role. Increasing agriculture productivity is an opportunity for Africa to reduce the poverty and hunger of its own population and reverse its current position of net food-import.