Africa's Changing Tide: Democracy, Growth and Hope
By Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia
When he addressed the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009, President Barack Obama reminded the people of Africa that the great men of the past would no longer shape the continent’s history. The future of all of Africa’s countries is now in the hands of a rising generation—young people, as President Obama said, “brimming with talent and energy and hope, who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.” With few notable exceptions, Africa is no longer made up of countries with corrupt big men who rule with iron fists. It is no longer the Dark Continent in continual economic free fall, wallowing in debt, poverty and disease. Now, Africa is on the rise.
There are a number of reasons for this changing tide. To begin, Africa’s governments are much more accountable. At the beginning of 2011, 17 elections were scheduled across our continent. In 1989, there were just three democracies in sub-Saharan Africa; by 2008, there were 23. The proliferation of elections is a significant improvement from the days when violence was the default means of transition. There are notable examples of the deepening of democracy in West Africa: The militaries of Niger and Guinea, for instance, oversaw their countries’ democratic elections then turned power over to their civilian governments. Afterwards, the militaries returned to their barracks. And despite the post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union recognized a non-incumbent as the legitimate winner.
That is progress.
We also see evidence of a rising Africa in the economy. Over the past decade Africa’s economy has been growing at more than 5 percent. Moreover, a recent African Development Bank report measured the climb of the middle class in Africa, which is now comprised of 313 million people out of 1 billion Africans. The noteworthy beneficiaries of this exceptional growth include Ghana, Mozambique, Mali, Tanzania, Cape Verde, Botswana, Burkina Faso, and Rwanda. As a result of this middle class the face of Africa is changing.
We are moving away from dependence on extractive industries and agriculture toward more diversified economies. Notably, Africa’s growing consumer class helped brace Africa during the global economic crisis. This fact is representative not only of the increase in the purchasing power of African households, but signifies that Africans can still feed their families when the rains fail.
Of course, we can further amplify the effects of these trends by taking advantage of South-South partnerships with China, India, and Brazil. And as Nigeria and Ghana become more significant partners, cooperation with them will be crucial to Africa’s economic growth.
To be sure, even as the African renaissance appears on course we must recognize that some of this progress is driven by the same rise in commodity demand that led to temporary gains four decades ago. Africa is a significant source of raw materials to India and China as well as the Western world, yet we generate the least profits from these exhaustible resources. Consequently, we remain vulnerable to external price shocks.
To hedge against these dangers, Africans need to receive more transfer of technology and growth in related industries. At the same time, until we begin to make products to sell; build better road and rail systems; improve the flow of people and goods across our borders; or supply the engineers and geologists and marketers of our resources our middle class will remain stunted.
In spite of these needs and the fundamental challenges of a resource-based economy, everywhere I travel in Africa I see signs of a continent rising. We are producing more, manufacturing more, trading more, and cooperating more. Words like accountability, transparency, and reform are not just the calling card of foreign donors. They are words that are beginning to adjudicate closed-door decisions for those governments in Africa that seek re-election. There is a growing consensus on these issues, which gives me great optimism about the future of Africa’s common economy and democratic prospects.
As a final word, I am excited about Africa’s future, and more so about Liberia’s. While instability and years of conflict have pushed us to the bottom in terms of the size of our middle class, we have stubbornly refused to accept the status quo. We are preparing a new development agenda that aims, through proper allocation of our natural resources, to graduate Liberia from development assistance in 10 years and propel us to a middle-income country by 2030. I am made more hopeful by our country’s second peaceful democratic transition in six years—a country that was riven by political rivalries, tribalism, and civil war for two decades.
It is, nonetheless, with cautious optimism that we approach the future. Despite Liberia’s rebirth, our achievements remain fragile and reversible. And yet I have no anxieties. From a decades-long career in public service, I have learned to value hope and resilience. I was there in the early ’70s, a decade after the independence movement swept across Africa. Back then, the future appeared full of endless possibilities but was met with a descent into militarism, sectarian violence, and divisive ethnic politics. But overtime, I have been blessed with the opportunity to watch and participate as African countries rise out of the ashes of war. As we move forward, it is my hope that we will continue to lead Africa into reaping the dividends of peace.
President Sirleaf’s delivered a version of this essay in remarks to Harvard University’s graduating class of 2011.
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