Some thoughts on Africa 2.0

by Tolu Ogunlesi

In its Feb 19, 2011 editorial, “A fresh chapter is opening in Africa’s history” the Guardian (London) observed:

“The African lions are finding their voice. A new generation of men and women has the ambition and imagination to reshape the continent in their own image – confident, assertive, successful, bold and proud… The story of Africa is changing. And we will be spreading the news.”

These days it seems a lot easier to pull up, from the internet, cheering news about Africa. The word “revolutionary”, when used these days regarding the continent, is less likely to be referring to a ‘revolutionary guard’ than an expression of people power, or technological innovation.

Tweeting recently from the Pivot 25 Mobile Apps & Developer Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, journalist Dayo Olopade reported: “The last panel at #pivot25 yields the best statistic: Mobile airtime beats beer as the most profitable business in East Africa.”

To hear that the business of ‘talking’ is outpacing that of drinking can only be good news – especially when we assume that at least some of that mobile phone expenditure goes towards creating connections that produce economic and political value; the kind that have helped drive the M-PESA mobile banking revolution in Kenya and altered (to varying degrees) the political landscape in Tunisia, Egypt and even Nigeria.

JM Ledgard’s article, “Digital Africa”, published in the Spring 2011 edition of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine. Ledgard, the Economist’s Nairobi correspondent, writes very knowledgeably about how undersea broadband cables and smartphones are helping transform a shackled continent into a wired one.

Olopade herself is working on a book (due out 2012), “The Bright Continent: How African Ideas Are Changing the World”, which promises to “demonstrate how the regional tradition of resourcefulness, creativity, and “making do” – combined with the recent explosion in communications and other technologies – transforms the continent’s problems into teachable moments in health, energy, education, media, justice and more.”

You’ll be hard pressed to find a better blurb than the title of the book itself; a subversion of the well-known “dark continent” moniker. From the book’s mission I recognise a subtle emphasis on the fact that it is the “resourcefulness, creativity, and ‘making do’” of Africa’s people that are the driving force of the change we’re witnessing. A disturbing fallout of the increasingly prominent roles social media are playing in the political landscape is the general perception that Facebook and Twitter are Africa’s revolution factories. In reality, Africa’s people, not Western technological inventions, remain its revolution factories, and these social media platforms are, and will remain, tools pressed into the service of a raging impulse for change.

This impulse for change is manifesting itself in diverse ways. China is compelling America to redefine its dealings with Africa. Already the US Congress is debating on an Africa Investment and Diaspora Act (AIDA), which open up new trade opportunities between African countries and the United States. In April 2010 the US and Nigeria launched a bi-national Commission.

And China itself is forced to contend with increased scrutiny – in the media and academia – of its African adventures. It’s going to be harder, it seems, for it to get away with the levels of political interference and economic exploitation associated with previous adventurers.

There is also a revolution happening in the fields of philanthropy and creative capitalism, primed to transform the continent into a laboratory of fresh ideas in everything from agriculture to health delivery. And these ideas will be as concerned about making a profit as they will be about fighting the tyranny of individual and communal poverty.

After a Central Bank directive placing a limit on the tenures of bank CEOs forced him to step down from UBA last year, Tony Elumelu, launched a foundation for the “promotion and celebration of excellence in business leadership and entrepreneurship across Africa.”

The Tony Elumelu Foundation has just announced a partnership with Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, to create a fellowship programme that will nurture a new generation of Africans who will bridge the often frightening divide between the private and public sectors.

The TEF provides a great example of the domino effects of a changing institutional terrain: improved corporate governance codes introduced by a reform-minded central bank compel a successful, long-standing CEO to step down, thus creating an opportunity for him to explore previously uncharted territory (a Foundation) while simultaneously allowing a new generation of leaders to fill his role in the banking industry.

And last November, for the first time ever, philanthropy organisations working across Africa came together in Nairobi to “[set] an African Agenda for Philanthropy in the Continent” and to formally launch the African Grantmakers Network (AGN).

‘Institutions’ matter…

Last year, in a column for Lagos-based newspaper NEXT, I listed a number of lessons I’ve learnt from two years of trying to make sense of Nigeria. I wrote: “The truth is that government matters far more than we think. The global meltdown has further highlighted the importance of the government – bailouts come from the state; the policies and laws that drive nations, or grind them into dust – are created by the state. Big business is good, billion-dollar-earning banks and corporations are good, but government will always remain in the driver’s seat.”

With the benefit of hindsight, one of the failings of the recent past was the bold push to completely circumvent inept governments, in a bid to unleash the continent’s creative and entrepreneurial potential.

It did work in a number of instances – Nollywood is one of the finest examples; with no government support a multi-million dollar global industry was created largely as part of the informal economy – but the danger is that those seeming successes bring with them a delusion: we soon start to think that our primary responsibility is to create mechanisms for thriving outside of the government, when the bulk of our efforts and energy should be spent finding creative ways to strengthen the government and its institutions (clamour for police and judicial and legislative reform; demand greater transparency from government agencies) and to build more bridges between private drive and public policy.

It is this institution building that Barack Obama was referring to in his 2009 Accra, Ghana speech, when he said: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

But so do (a new breed of) strongmen and women

In truth, Africa 2.0 needs strong men and women, in addition to strong institutions, and Mr. Obama’s words could do with some redefining. When he says “Africa doesn’t need strongmen”, it is evident that he means the kind of strongmen that have led it to where it is today – the Mobutus and Does and Abachas and Mugabes. The continent certainly needs a new breed of strongmen, operating on a redenominated currency: the old currency of army and police and treasury control has to give way to the new currency of idea-driven governance and capitalism.

The possibility that in the near future a good number of African countries will no longer have to depend totally on earnings from natural resources will hopefully translate into a positive devaluation of centralised political power. The expansion of a class of strongmen – entrepreneurs, scientists, news media, etc – who do not owe their wealth (or its expansion) to easy access to oil blocs and diamond mines and political office, alongside the inevitable expansion of the middle class, will reduce the prospects of the kind of totalitarian control that once defined and destroyed the African continent.

There’s the possibility that as Nigeria’s non-oil industries blossom, and more opportunities open up for private sector-led creation of substantial wealth, there will be a transformational re-wiring of a national psyche long conditioned to be rent-seeking in outlook.

Optimist illusions?

In all of these is there the looming danger of falling into an overly optimistic stance, regarding the future of the continent? Yes. I’m aware of that danger. I recognise that African countries still have a long way to go, and the traumas and tragedy of centuries cannot be reversed overnight. Most countries continue to face several challenges, not least of which are the dismal developmental indices – in health, education, power generation, etc.

As Ledgard points out in his article, Africa’s one billion people, 15 percent of the world’s population, currently consume only 4 percent of its electricity. Corruption continues to flourish in countries like Nigeria. New legislation requires getting used to by citizens, the police, and a judicial system long conditioned to anomalous thinking.

And yes, African countries continue to prove that there is little correlation between making plans and implementing change. Nigeria’s post-independence history is a graveyard of enthusiastically assembled government plans: four National Development Plans in the first 25 years of independence; one Health, Housing and Education for All by 2000 dream; one elaborately conceived Vision 2010 policy; a National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS); and, most recently, the inchoate Vision 2020. There’s therefore no evidence at hand to prove that Nigeria’s Vision 2020, and the Kenyan and Namibian Visions 2030 will turn out to be anything more than downloadable pdf files.

But we must pay attention to one important fact: a changing (slowly, admittedly, but steadily) institutional environment. After decades of apathy, ordinary citizens are beginning to play more significant roles in the politics of their countries. People are realising the value of the “vote”, and there are more avenues for people to more closely monitor their leaders and to protest about the quality of leadership they’re getting.

And not always in conventional ways. Last month a group of women activists marched to Nigeria’s parliament, threatening to strip themselves naked if the National Health Bill, wasn’t passed. Around the same time an anonymous consortium of hackers launched attacks on government websites, demanding that the President sign the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill.

This year alone, Nigeria’s parliament has passed, apart from the National Health and FOI bills, unprecedented legislation on tobacco control, terrorism, and money laundering. And the country now has a Sovereign Wealth Fund – a sign that future oil revenues may be less likely to end up in Switzerland. A bill seeking to reform the corrupt petroleum industry by streamlining its confusing patchwork of laws, and compelling transparency, is also under consideration.

The point is this: in the emerging Africa it is harder for the government to carry on as though the people didn’t exist, or as though they existed to be deceived, because the citizens are losing the fear that once held them down. And then again, yes, people do get sick and tired of suffering, and less and less patient with lying, thieving, murderous tyrants.

The term “Africa 2.0” has been used to describe this new face of Africa. In my mind I see Africa 2.0 as a giant construction site. So much is going on simultaneously: sketching, assembling, pulling down, and dredging; and arguments and debates, some threatening to turn violent. Architectural plans are emerging and disappearing and changing as construction is going on, and accidents happen every now and then.

But much as it looks like the tower of Babel, it isn’t. While there remain different languages – literal (linguistic), legal, ideological – there’s also the unifying ‘pidgin’ of hope, enthusiasm and hitherto-unseen opportunity – and technology is playing an important role in translating differences across borders and barriers.

There is no clear picture yet of what Africa 2.0 will look like, or when it will lose that frenzied construction-site feel, but if you look closely enough you will see the new patterns and narratives slowly but confidently imposing themselves on the old.