The power of getting together – the end of benevolent dictatorship in Africa?

This has happened so often: An aspiring president has launched a political platform based upon fight against corruption, reduction of poverty,  less nepotism, revival of agriculture and equal treatment of all ethnic groups.

Once in power, the vision often fades out. It seems as if powerful forces in society that encompass the presidency take the lead. Quickly a newly elected president is trapped by an elite that greatly benefits from the system of patrimonialism.  The president seems to be paralyzed by external pressures. He starts to allocate privileges among the powerful elites to secure important support as soon as re-election is on the agenda.

The late president of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, once complained bitterly about how he was frustrated by people around him and who defeated him in his struggle to fight corruption.

Some leaders have changed from being champions of democracy when in opposition to become autocratic in position, clinging to power. And autocratic leaders are usually scared of people with different political views. They intimidate the opposition, threaten the free media and civil society and allow police to harass ordinary people.

However, since 2016, protests against this kind of leadership have swept across Africa. Often articulated and organized through social media. Many authoritarian leaders now fear social media more than they fear opposition political parties because of the new media`s ability to mobilize against the regime in power.

Brutal and dictatorial leaders like Mugabe, dos Santos and Jammeh have been ousted. New regimes are in place in South Africa and Ethiopia.

The most impressive of the new leaders is the prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiye Ahmed. He has said he will reform the judiciary, revisit the repressive laws, open up the democratic space and give space for a free and independent media.

It shall be interesting to follow his ability to manoeuvre in the old political system and see if has the strength and stamina to implement his political platform and be a model for  other African countries,







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Agriculture is the engine driving many African countries

Two thirds of Africans depend on farming for their livelihood. The sector`s potential is enormous. The World Bank has estimated that African agriculture and agribusiness could be worth $ 1 trillion in 2030.

However, agriculture is not attractive for African youth. To be a farmer is regarded as backbreaking, hard labour in the fields with meagre benefits. They have seen their parents, poor with ragged clothing, using old- fashioned equipment, always short of fertilizers and other inputs to survive. Farming is for the elderly and poor in rural areas

The upcoming generation of young people, often poor and irrelevant education, prefer to settle in urban areas in search of employment there.

If agriculture were to get the same political support and financial investment as mining sector, agriculture would be capable of providing more jobs with decent income. Reforms have to be introduced to mechanize and produce the agriculture more efficiently.

Urban people are often fed by imported food, which undermines domestic agriculture. Africa imports $ 34 bn of food annually, but could easily feed itself if agricultural productivity improved. Africa need to add more value to its natural resources before being exported.

The need to reverse decades of policy neglect and to increase investment in African agriculture is widely recognized. Some critics, however, argue that large-scale investment can marginalize Africa`s small scale farmers and open up for increased land grabbing by international companies with little understanding of local land rights

Some agricultural economists emphasise the potentials for a full range of investment options for promoting agricultural development as collaboration between small-, medium-, and large-scale players.

Foreign investment in agriculture is no necessarily “land grabbing”. The main reason why international land rush to Africa is providing bad news for rural people has to do with the complete failure of governance and lack of control of the decision making process. Large land deals are signed over the heads of local people, while greedy politicians are concerned getting their share of the investment.

Job creation for young people is more about political leadership and political will than about shortage of funds. When Asian countries were poor as African countries to-day, they decided to change their economies, starting with smallholder agriculture.

To invest in agriculture could benefit food security at both global and national level. But incentives and good policies need to be in place to attract young people to farming.

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Civil Society in Africa – the role of foreigners

Civil society is not necessarily good in itself. Sometimes civil society has contributed  towards destruction of societies and played a negative role in conflicts and peace  building. But in most countries civil society plays an important role both as a provider of services and with an important watchdog function constantly challenging those in power.

For many years formal African civil society organisations, both the agenda setting and financing, have been the domain of external actors. Often indigenous organisations have been established and financed to implement policies of international civil society organisations.

This is now about to change. In the future, the trend is that local organisations approach foreign organisations for cooperation, not the other way around.

African governments have welcomed foreign NGOs when the main focus has been service delivery. They are now, however, increasingly skeptical to external political/human rights involvement. There is no doubt that the shrinking space for many NGOs in Africa often is caused by the use of external funding to influence domestic decision making. It is easy to be fatigued by constantly being advised and influenced from outside.

One reason may be that international NGOs often are surprisingly disconnected from newly established indigenous organisations and movements now gaining influence in many African countries. The new wave of associations seems to be based on the importance of maintaining local legacy. They are open for cooperation with foreign NGOs, but not to be dominated by them. They would fail in their mission if they were to concentrate on designing log-frames and writing reports to donors.

But to be open for ideas from outside is a good thing for all!








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Africa – between optimism and despair

Africa was believed to become the new superpower. With all its potentials and with an upcoming generation of new leaders,  the “Africa rising” movement developed both inside and outside the continent.

Now Africa is not even able to feed its own people. It seems to have been another false start. It has been estimated that 60% of the world`s uncultivated arable land is in Africa, just waiting for leaders to exploit it instead of begging for food to avoid hunger. Some leaders also use “climate  change” as an excuse for lack action.

Millions of people are at risk of starvation in countries like Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. These countries are all at war. The famine is never just a  natural disaster. It is always a product of politics.

National leaders should be drivers of development for all rather than being preoccupied with distributing privileges among themselves. When a poor country shops for weapons, begs for food and ignore poverty in their own country, the term “failed state” is relevant. Reports from South Sudan say that the Government try to stop humanitarian aid because it could be used to feed the enemy, is an indication that South Sudan is no 1 failed state in Africa today.

Countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda are not the best models of “good governance”, but their autocratic leaders have been effective in stabilizing their countries, as well rebuilding fragmented societies.

Democracy is hard  to sustain in the absence of economic growth for the poor. People start looking for a firm hand who acts more than he/she talks. Many of the most impoverished have come to see democracy as a system that keeps them poor and the corrupt people in power.

Maybe there are better systems of representative governance in Africa than the competitive western style multi-party elections, without going the autocratic way?

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Maybe Africa did not plan for success

African countries have had a fast and impressive growth. But the economic growth did not coincide with poverty elimination because it was not linked to the economic sectors that affect the poor. Youth unemployment has now reached  alarming proportions.

The risk for riots and more social unrest is accelerated by the urbanization of the poor. Frustrated young people living people in townships are easily attracted to criminal gangs or terrorist organizations. Access st social media also make mobilization more easy.

Africa displays the fast rate of urban growth in the world. It has been estimated that African countries need to generate productive jobs for 7 to 10 million young people entering the labor force each year.

Many young people are without the requisite skills to enter the formal labor market, which has become increasingly demanding. A disturbingly high share of those who have completed primary school have difficulties with reading and writing.

The school system many places is characterized by students who are expected to be obedient, follow instructions, copy what the teacher says and memorize form the text books. Conformity is a prime virtue.

African leaders have declared 2009 – 18 “the African youth decade”. Governments have launched numerous youth employment strategies, but unemployment and underemployment continue to rise.

More and more Africans refuse to tolerate a situation that Africa is a rich continent  but the majority of its people being very poor.

A recipe for instability and unrest, unless new leaders emerge and act instead of talk.




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To defeat a President

Typical  African scenario:


1. The newly elected President has launched an ambitious reform program to fight poverty, reduce corruption, revive agriculture and secure equal treatment of all ethnic groups.

2. The President is quickly encompassed by powerful forces within society who benefit from status quo and continued patrimonialism. The President gets frustrated and gives gradually up his reform agenda.


3. When the President retires, he joins the group of the “old and wise” who look behind and talk about what they could and should have done when in power.


Recommended reading: “Inside the Presidency”, written by former Presidential  adviser in Zambia, Dickson Jere

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Africa – from pessimism to optimism- and now more realism

There are many sweeping statements about development in Africa. Some are optimistic and some are pessimistic. The outside world has difficulties in understanding what is happening in Africa and the extraordinary forces in play there. Little insight  is provided by western media.  African scholars are often surprisingly anonymous

And Africa is complex. For every generalization you must exclude some countries. When you think you have nailed down a certainty, you will find that the opposite is also true.

For example, ethnicity has been seen has a major reason for civil wars and unrest in Africa. But there are exceptions. War-torn Somalia has a population where the vast majority share the same language, ethnicity, culture and religion, while peaceful Zambia has more than 70 ethnically groups, 7 major languages and 73 dialects.

What we know is that two out of three Africans are under twenty-five years old. The population of the continent will double in 20 years. We also know that it will then be principally urban. By 2030, over half of the continent`s population will live in cities.

The Afro-pessimists fear unemployment, development of huge urban slums, violence, crime and civil wars. They believe that the present economic growth is temporary. The lack of employment possibilities and development of urban slums combined with poor political leadership will result in Africa as a permanent poor and undeveloped continent.

The Afro-optimists do not fear the demographic explosion. They see the expansion of urban youth and a bonanza of natural resource export as potentials for further economic development. Urban youth are the workforce best suited for innovation and productive employment.

Africa sits upon the world`s largest reserves of a whole range of essential resources and will soon learn how to negotiate on its own terms with other countries. With accountable governments, effective public spending and revenues from taxes to the benefit of the people and not to the few, Africa could be the next emerging power.

So what kind of political system is best to serve a society which is resource-rich and ethnically diverse? Is Rwanda the model, or Zambia?

Multi-party system, as we know it in Europe, has not been a success as a mean of representing the will of the people. Most people in Africa care more about having a Government that secures peace, stability, housing, health facilities and education than a system that is democratic the way we know democracy in Europe.

Paul Collier has one answer: “The type of polity that appears most appropriate is one Africa tends not to have: strong checks and balances on how governments can use power and decentralized public spending.”

For democracy to work, winners must not be greedy, losers must accept defeat and trustworthy institutions must be in place to monitor and regulate.




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