Political instability in Africa’s “lions”: a recipe for a nuanced continental trajectory

By Hannah Pedone

The Economist’s December 2011 Africa Rising cover depicts a boy flying an Africa-shaped rainbow kite, allegedly symbolizing “Africa’s hopeful economies.” The outlet evidenced the continent’s rise by the fact that in the decade previous, “six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African.” The edition’s celebratory outlook contrasts with the dismal forecasts of the May 2000 edition entitled The Hopeless Continent, whose cover features an Africa-shaped snapshot of a combatant holding a kalashnikov.

Commentators and policymakers have latched onto grandiose narratives of Africa’s rise, despite support from only a small fraction of countries’ economic growth figures and commodity price explosions. Afro-optimism, with regards to the fast-growing “African lions,” (in contrast with the “Southeast Asian tigers”) has matured against a backdrop of emerging powers’ intensifying interest in African markets, and is peddled within discourse of south-south solidarity. The Economist’s blunders have taught us readers of the St Andrews Economist, that no handful of countries can accurately encapsulate the fluid state of a 54-country continent. Even investigating the political trajectories of two of Africa’s most “hopeful” economies, Ethiopia and Rwanda, sketch a picture of a continent that continues to confront political and ethnic instability, manifesting in overt violence in the former and latent insecurity in the latter.  Ethiopia and Rwanda showcase how simplistic macroeconomic indicators, tags of hot conflict, and box ticking of good governance criteria do not reveal patterns of political repression which threaten to unravel knife-edge developmental gains and reroute the trajectories of Africa’s most promising economic powerhouses. 

In the mid-1900s, Ethiopia and Rwanda were two of the world’s poorest states with GDP per capita figures less than US$150. Both countries emerged after devastating civil wars as two of Africa’s fastest-growing countries, with Rwanda and Ethiopia respectively averaging 7.18 and 8.92 percent growth in GDP from 2000 until 2020. Each has invested in long-term development planning bolstered by the fact that their “visionary,” strong-man leaders have sustained power, albeit controversially so, through numerous elections.  

President Paul Kagame has been legitimized by members of the international community as an architect of Rwanda’s post-genocide, democratic rebuilding and economic turnaround. The country has achieved a relatively strong degree of political stability since 1994 when members of Rwanda’s Hutu majority murdered at least 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Under the top-down leadership of Kagame, strengthened by his loyal, ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, the government spearheaded programs to expand internet access, improve education, and attract international donors with the help of stable governance indicators. The country has even embarked on a contentious “green revolution” to reorganize the agriculture sector and rural landscape.

Ethiopia, like Rwanda, experienced an impressive post-civil war political and economic transformation since 1991, having endured two famines in the mid-70s and 80s, and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war in 1999. Since 2000, the country has diversified its economy, reduced its dependence on agriculture and has launched several massive-scale infrastructure projects, including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia has nonetheless relied on $13.7 billion in loans from China from 2000 to 2018 and faces severe pressure from external creditors, having been forced to restructure debt on several occasions. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to office in 2018, promising a reduction in external loan reliance, political liberalisation, and democratic reforms in the wake of major social unrest and anti-government protests from 2016-2018. Abiy has faltered in his tactics to defuse ethno-political tensions between Ethiopia’s federally mandated ethnic regions. Two million nine hundred thousand Ethiopians have been displaced by ethnic violence as of 2019.

Tensions between the federal government and Ethiopia’s previously ruling Tigray minority escalated to full military confrontation on 4 November, 2020. Abiy’s government declared war on Tigray triggering violent clashes and a humanitarian crisis causing 30,000 Ethiopians to flee to Sudan. After a federal takeover of the Tigray capital, Mekelle, Abiy has since claimed victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the main Tigray party and army in opposition to the Addis Ababa government. The TPLF surrendered on December 1, but their leaders have fled to Ethiopia’s mountainous regions and the TPLF has shown signs of a budding guerilla insurgency. 

Contrastingly, Kagame has been able to maintain stability despite simmering ethnic tensions. He has done so by placing limits on democratic debate, suppressing public discussion of ethnic identity, heavy state surveillance, close monitoring of opposition, and jailing of political opponents. Such restrictions on political freedom have been problematically justified as necessary “emergency” measures for a country healing from a history of lethal political instability. Kagame’s rule indeed marks a clear departure from Rwanda’s violent past, and compared to Ethiopia, Rwanda remains stable in its state of political rigidity. Yet, Rwanda is in many ways ripe for conflict. Narratives applauding Rwanda’s political and economic transformation conceal counter narratives of political fragmentation and suppression of ethnnic identity—issues which threaten Rwanda’s current economic and political stability, or guise of such. 

 Both Ethiopia and Rwanda are states lauded for their political reforms and thriving economic growth, evidently aided by technocratic leadership and intense state involvement in citizen affairs. Even among Africa’s economic “lions,” such gains are not yet longstanding, as indicated by Ethiopia erupting into conflict in November 2020. Dismal discourse regarding the continent often dwells on hot conflict rather than latent, systemic political challenges like in Rwanda. Ethiopia and Rwanda showcase how similar patterns of political repression continue to endure in African states regardless of the degree of stability or instability manifested. Reductionist narratives of growth-driven Afro-optimism neglect political realities which put countries spearheading even the most impressive frontier growth, on precarious footings. 

Even if the continent did have a collective positive economic trajectory, it has been uprooted by Covid-19, which has triggered major commodity price crashes and a tourism slump. The question as to whether Africa will rise in the long run is highly contingent on political processes on national, regional, and continental levels as well as the ability of African decisionmakers to consolidate peace with long-term stability as their key priority. Commentators, public news outlets, and policymakers can help incentivize this outcome by refraining from publishing overblown claims of progress when long-term political stability remains in flux. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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