Africa Is Rising. Africans Are Not.
Sometimes development is uneven.
This statement, uttered by a businessman working towards a “cashless Nigeria,” led to the realization that my worker-centered philosophy was incompatible with those of the other attendees at the Columbia African Economic Forum gala.
My question, on how “cashless societies” and other business ventures that obviously only benefited those already at the top of the economic food chain, was met with the unsatisfying response of uneven development, and an assertion that we have to start somewhere. Surrounded by would be venture capitalists, financiers, and Wall Street drones, it seemed obvious that Nigeria was already a cashless society; most of its citizens don’t have any.
However, for upwardly mobile cosmopolitan Africans like the gentleman at the gala, Africa is no longer the poverty-stricken panderer of yesteryears, and a hopeful phase of dramatic economic growth signals a new dawn. Articles from renowned publications and projections from the IMF validate the so called “rise.” In addition to the growth of the telecommunication industry, an expanding consumer class, new natural resource reserves, and a surge in foreign direct investment, the new emerging African economy is a triumphant story that many in the Diaspora promulgate and celebrate.
In doing so however, they are discounting the overwhelming realities of millions of Africans whose livelihood has stagnated or deteriorated in this period of great growth. Accordingly, when asked about the betterment of their countrymen, some simply assert that development is uneven and placate doubters with declarations that Africa is starting somewhere.
Somewhere is the epicenter of extreme poverty and extreme opulence. Evidence from several African countries indicates that this new growth is primarily making rich Africans super-rich Africans, and has further marginalized the majority of the continent’s population.
Angola, a nation whose economy was decimated by three decades of civil war (1975-2002), provides the most glaring example of the widening wealth disparity. While Angola’s capitol, Luanda, advertises Africa’s most expensive penthouse (around $21 million), families of sick loved ones are “on call” and sleep on concrete slabs outside of the General Hospital because the hospital does not provide food or water for its patients. While Luanda’s skyline is ever-changing as towering construction cranes build new offices and condos, many Luandans live in shantytown shacks. While Jacques Marraud des Grottes, head of African exploration and production for Total calls Angola “a land of success, one of the top places for us for growth,” only 9% of Luandans have running water. More Luandans actually had running water during the war than they do now.
Keep in mind that this is a country that more than doubled the size of its economy in one decade; a country with an annual average growth rate of 11%; a country with a budget surplus of 10% of GDP in 2011; a country with economic news that would have most European countries salivating.
Nigeria provides another example. While the last decade was marked by higher economic growth, the unemployment rate actually increased from 5.8% in December 2006 to 23.9% in January 2012. Note that this number measures the percentage of workers actively looking for work, and does not include the rate of the chronically unemployed who have stopped looking, and the underemployed working poor. Tellingly, the poverty rate actually doubled over the last five years and now affects 112 million Nigerians, meaning that 112 million Nigerians are consistently without food, clean water, sanitation, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education.
In the case of Angola and Nigeria, one could argue that both economies are dependent on extractive industries which drive growth rates as they are more capital intensive, but rarely create substantial employment since the industry is less labor intensive. One could also reason that both countries have an endemic corruption problem. These are valid arguments as to why these two specific countries have a widening economic inequality gap, but don’t address the growing evidence that despite a difference in governance style, region, or even the diversity of its economies, pronounced wealth disparity is a Continent-wide phenomenon.
Currently, the top five most unequal countries in the world are in Africa: Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, and Sierra Leone. Surprisingly, South Africa, the Continent’s most influential and diversified economy, is slightly more unequal today that it was in 1993 shortly after apartheid ended. Further, three out of the twenty most expensive cities in the world are also on the continent: Luanda (2), N’Djamena (8th), and Libreville (20th)- all of which are more expensive than London. Estimates indicate that monthly rent payments for a one bedroom apartment in Luanda is over $10,000; a burger over $50; and a yearly gym membership around $10,000.
Considering that Africa is the poorest and most underdeveloped continent on the globe, these numbers provide a startling account of the current state of play: the few who have, have everything, and the majority who don’t, have nothing. This is not to suggest that Africans who have amassed great personal wealth are culpable for the alarming disparity, but this is what uneven development looks like. This is where Africa is. This is what many deem worthy of celebration.
I understand that it is much easier to delight in articles and documentaries about a “rising Africa” than to examine personal class privilege. Economic inequality tasks those who have to consider the legitimacy of their wealth; it is an encompassing problem that we cannot donate, aid, or volunteer away.
Ultimately, African governments hold the solution to a more equitable society. By closing the skills gap, initiating a more progressive corporate tax system, and providing subsidies for public services that protect the bottom percentile, many countries can begin to turn the tide. However, we must all first admit that most Africans are not rising with Africa, and that wealth disparity is a major obstacle to overall development.
Not doing so, and choosing to remain intentionally oblivious to the hardships of the majority of Africans who are losers in this new economic landscape is inane, and just downright cruel.
Jumoke is the co-founder of compareafrique.com.