With a New Africa, We need a New Approach

Aug. 14, 2014, 1:48 p.m.

African leaders recently gathered in Washington D.C. to debate and discuss the continent's diverse challenges and prospects.  IFES Manatt Fellow and elections and conflict analyst Gregory Wallsworth * weighs in on the discussion.

No matter how you look at the African continent, it is young. According to World Review, the average age of a person on the continent is 18, and forty percent of Africans, roughly 416 million people, are 14 or younger. Not only are the people young, but so are the countries. More importantly though, the institutions in those countries are younger still. In a March, 2012 article, The Economist said that only one African country, Eritrea, did not at least hold Elections. In the past two decades many have shed dictatorships and moved towards Democracy, with wildly varying degrees of success. The Arab spring ushered in a new era in many North African countries, and though successful in bringing down dictatorships, it has been far less successful in putting effective new democracies in their place.

With the convergence on Washington D.C. of many leaders from Africa, important debates and discussions occurred with prominent figures from Africa all around the nation’s capital. One such event was a round table discussion, with a focus on how the U.S. could intervene to address the security situation across the continent. A few themes emerged from the discussion, and one of them as I eluded to is that the continent is young in almost every respect. This bulge of youth could be a blessing, or it could feed into the biggest problem the continent currently faces, security.

Conflict is complex, and often the roots of particular conflicts can go back decades, if not centuries. Nonetheless, these conflicts are rarely continuous. Scholars have examined hundreds of variables, across an almost equal number of ways to define conflict, and one pattern stands out above the rest, poverty. The same theme was echoed amongst the individuals in the discussion, and as much as they saw the talent of the continents youth as a blessing, no one would deny their current lack of opportunity. How this situation is handled will likely determine the path for the continent it could be used as an advantage, but it can also be leveraged by extremist groups like Boko Haram.

The U.S., and other countries then face a dilemma, caused by this cycle of conflict and poverty. Lack of investment, can lead to poor economic conditions, leading to conflict, making economic conditions yet worse, again starting the cycle over. The pain of doing nothing however is extreme, conflict plagues entire regions, not simply the country it occurs in. A paper by James Murdoch, and Todd Sandler demonstrates the magnitude of these effects on neighboring countries. The duration of the effect is however open to debate, some scholars such as, Edward Miquel when investigating the impact of bombing in Vietnam, found little lasting effect, however a recent study focused on African nations put out by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve bank found noticeable impacts five years after the end of a civil war.

What then should Western Countries do? The conversation never went too long without the constant reminder that China, always stands ready to poor money into the continent, however their needs are not always in line with those of Africa. There is no question some countries in the region sit on top of immense reserves of natural resources. However, this sort of wealth rarely seems to lead to lasting peace, and many studies have argued actually leads to more conflict. As pointed out by Nigerian Billionaire Aliko Dangote in an article on Shanghai Daily, Intra-African trade is less than fifty percent of trade in West Africa, and many consumption goods are imported, which implies jobs are being exported. This implies pushing more policies like the Trade Africa, which was designed to encourage both intra-regional trade, and exporting to the United States among states in the Eastern Africa Community.

In the end, we need to view Africa as a new continent, vibrant with opportunity and fundamentally different than the West. We must acknowledge the fact, that Africa wants democracy, but that democracy should look differently. If we are to invest on the continent, at the same time we need to aid countries in providing security for their people. Doing either separately would simply be putting a Band-Aid on a wound sure to re-open. Perhaps, above all else, we should follow the lead of organizations like that which hosted the discussion, Nexus Africa, and focus on the continents youth. Empower them, with a voice that is heard, and give them the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty, and henceforth the region out of conflict.


Gregory Wallsworth is a PhD Candidate entering his fifth year in Michigan State University's Department of Economics. His research generally seeks to understand the Causes and Consequences of a variety of forms of Political Violence. He is currently working on a paper focusing on the role of protest in the escalation of civil conflict, using the divergent cases found in the Arab Spring as the focus of the Study. While in residence as at IFES he worked on a paper examining how the design of an electoral system interacts with election related violence. Greg's research seeks to uncover where we might expect to see violence under different systems, how violence impacts voter participation, and how different electoral systems interact with social cleavages that lead to conflict. 

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