international analysis and commentary

Africa’s future and the complex effects of modernization

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Historically, Africa is a continent that outsiders have seen through various veils of illusion. One of the great and recurring illusions about Africa is that by investing there geopolitically, one can gain power. So we have seen the French after 1871 build an empire in Africa that contributed rather little. We saw the Italians after the somewhat anti-climax of Italian Unification move into Africa in the hope that it would boost Italy’s power, but with very little success. Germany did the same with its interest in the colonial scramble. More recently, in the 1970s we saw the USSR make significant geopolitical advances in Africa which had really nothing to do with the overall balance of forces in the Cold War. And again perhaps today we see China adopting a similar geopolitical approach to Africa, hoping that it will translate into something larger.

There are also recent myths surrounding Africa, essentially two views opposed to each other. One view is the expectation of the African emerging giants of the 21st century: they are supposedly going to grow rapidly because they have so far to go. We’ve seen different countries from time to time seizing the headlines as the rising economy of the future, but Africa now runs the risk of being the next Brazil: the economic success story of the future that will always be so – whose time may never come.  

On the other hand, we have Afro-pessimism: the Dark Continent, bad governance, poverty, and even outside powers struggling to keep it down just to exploit the continent’s resources. So there is a deterministic and pessimistic view of Africa’s future. The real answer is that one needs to be both more optimistic than many of the optimists and more pessimistic than many of the pessimists to capture the richness and the complexity, the opportunities and the dangers, of Africa’s evolution.

To put things in some historical perspective, let’s think about past episodes of rapid economic and political development, most critically Europe between 1850 and 1950. If we look at Europe in 1950 we see by and large, especially in the West, countries that are peaceful, that are beginning to prosper, and that have overcome many of the social divisions of the past. However, the century of development that led to that was anything but peaceful and quiet. There were massive wars, many states that fell apart, new states that were created, episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide. We see some of this today in the Middle East and we need to understand that human progress is never simple and linear. Modernization is not a process of smooth ascent, but rather it creates as many problems as it solves, especially in the short term.

As Africa modernizes – with growth, urbanization, and economic development – this is likely in many cases to sharpen ethnic, religious, and other divides in many countries. We can look for example at Nigeria today, where we find the extremist movement Boko Haram, and the South of the country moving away from the North and undermining the predominance of the Northern establishment as the heart of the Nigerian post-colonial project.

If you look at what has been happening more widely, a general cultural trend in Africa over the past 50 years is the explosion of Christianity. Much of Sub-Saharan Africa, where traditional religions were still dominant at the end of the colonial era, has by and large become Christian. This has created a line of division with Islamic Africa that extends from the coast of Kenya and Tanzania across to the West and the Atlantic coast. And while there are many local conflicts and issues that are distinct and unique to different places along this line, in general we are seeing a tendency toward more polarization in group identity and even militancy on both sides of that divide. We’re seeing a greater American military presence in much of Africa due to this group of conflicts.

To better understand such developments, it must be emphasized that recent conflicts (including those in the Great Lakes region, around Rwanda and Eastern Congo) are not so much a product of failure of modernization as they are a consequence of modernization.

Again, just as in Europe, as countries begin to develop industrial economies and begin to modernize, this increases the sense of social cohesion among members of a language group but also reduces their patience with being governed by people who are not members of their linguistic or cultural group. With modernization, the state becomes more important as it takes on more functions and citizens’ expectations grow. For example, if you introduce primary education nationally, in what language will classes be taught? This is not only a question of how well some students will do in school, but also of what communities will get the jobs of teaching in these schools and in the institutes that prepare the teachers for the jobs. So it becomes much more important that the language be your language, or that the government decisions be made by people that you feel cultural affinities with.

In addition, accelerated migration tends to be a consequence of modernization. As people leave the land and as agricultural productivity rises, they move not only to other cities within their country (the ongoing urbanization of Africa), but they also move to big cities in different countries (one can go to South Africa and see the consequences of this today), both in Africa and in other continents.

In short, Africa is getting better, Africa is getting worse. As history should teach us, neither the optimists nor the pessimists fully grasp the tremendous changes that we are likely to see in this large continent over the next generation.