6 April 2015

Capitalism and democracy can unlock Africa’s great potential


The message to his country is simple: ‘Don’t expect miracles.’ These are wise words from Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s septuagenarian new leader surveys his immense domain. For having won power, the former general presides over a nation – the most populous in Africa – that is beset with problems from Islamic militancy in the north through to grotesque corruption and massive economic woes caused by collapsing oil prices.

Yet in some ways, the miracle has already happened. For Nigeria has joined the club of nations on the continent that has seen leaders removed from office through the ballot box, a process that began in 1971 in neighbouring Benin. After Buhari won last month’s ballot by 2.6m votes, the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan graciously accepted defeat in what was possibly the finest moment of his lacklustre presidency. Few Nigerians dared hope power might be handed over so peacefully; Jonathan’s party had, after all, controlled the west African behemoth since military rulers ceded control 16 years ago.

Whatever happens next, this is a moment to savour – and not just because the surprise success of the former military hardliner seemed the best of the bad options on offer to the electorate. Jonathan had done little to tackle the huge problems confronting Africa’s most influential nation, whether dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency, improving woeful infrastructure or simply making his remarkably entrepreneurial nation an easier place to do business. The result is that almost two-thirds of people in this oil-rich country remain trapped in poverty, while billions have been swindled from the public finances.

In his first speech after winning the election, the nation’s austere new leader promised to fight against corruption, which he called even worse than terrorism. It is estimated two-thirds of the £400bn oil revenues earned by government since independence in 1960 have been misspent or stolen. The problems this causes have become even more profound as Nigeria’s economic growth slowed following the oil price slump, leading to budget cuts and falling sales in shops.

But this is a country of pent-up potential, which is why the election was seen as the most important political event of the year in Africa. If Nigeria sorts itself out, it symbolises the hopeful Africa Rising narrative and shows how Africans are resolving their own problems. For too long self-aggrandising aid groups, backed by blinkered Western government paymasters, have promoted an image of a hopeless place in need of outside salvation. This corrosive narrative undermines a transformation driven by capitalism, consumerism and societal changes, while deterring businesses and tourists from a continent of 54 diverse countries.

Africa now has more people who are overweight than go to bed hungry each night. And Nigeria, which accounts for one-quarter of the continent’s economy, highlights the complex new narrative with its thriving service sector alongside grinding poverty. Buhari gives his divided nation a fresh burst of hope. And his taking power also serves to showcase the stuttering spread of democracy across the continent, which has now seen more than 30 governments removed through the ballot box.

This can only speed up development, for all the flaws in some supposed democracies. Almost thirty years ago an exciting new president correctly diagnosed a key problem facing his continent. ‘The problem of Africa… is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power,’ said Yoweri Museveni in the year he took office in Uganda, part of a new wave of technocratic leaders. Today, this same man proves the wisdom of his words as he clings to power amid festering corruption and growing intolerance. Next-door in Rwanda, another of those rulers that once promised much has descended into depravity.

It is easy to let such bloodstained despots overshadow the democrats; almost nine in ten citizens of Togo have known only one ruling family while the likes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Teodore Obiang in Equatorial Guinea continue to pillage places that should be prosperous. There are suspicions in at least three nations, including Rwanda, that elected presidents are seeking to change their constitutions to stay in power.

But then look at Zambia, where a new president scraped to victory in January by a narrow squeak. Or Senegal, where the first president is seeking to strengthen democracy by cutting his term of office from seven to five years. Or Mauritania, where another former junta leader who converted to democracy says he intends to stand down at the end of his second term. Or Namibia, where Hifikepunye Pohamba has just been awarded the $5m Mo Ibrahim Prize given to an elected head of state who respects the constitution and leaves at their allotted time.

Do not be deluded by the doom-mongers, with their self-serving sermons of despair. Africa needs stability and good governance to thrive – and it needs to be driven by Africans themselves, not meddling outsiders, as the continent fights the demons of its past and unlocks its immense human potential. Slowly but surely, for all the setbacks, this change is occurring and the world is waking up to what is happening. As so often, nowhere better exemplifies this than Nigeria, the slumbering giant. But the election is just the beginning: now the hard work begins for the soft-spoken Buhari to fulfill those campaign promises.

Ian Birrell is Contributing Editor at the Mail on Sunday