May 16, 2011 2:04 am

A continent ready to take its place

Stephen Ellis’s new account of a fast-changing Africa

Season of Rains: Africa in the World, by Stephen Ellis, C Hurst & Co Ltd, RRP£16.99

 

Nicolas Sarkozy surely rues the day he gave his first speech on the African continent as French president, at the university in Dakar, Senegal. “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has never really entered history,” he said, to open mouths in the audience and later a barrage of outrage on websites from Johannesburg to Abidjan. “The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress,” he said.

Buried though it was in broader remarks, it was a poorly judged aside, reminiscent of the Hegelian underpinnings of colonial thinking, dating back to the 19th century, and the notion that history in Africa only began when Europeans brought with them “progress”. It was also an extreme example of the kind of outmoded thinking that still influences debate about Africa in the west, and which Stephen Ellis picks apart in his new account of a fast-changing continent and its increasingly complex relationships with the rest of the world, entitled Season of Rains.

The timing of the book, named after a Cameroonian poem about forecasting the harvest at the first rains, is impeccable. Its publication follows a rash of research celebrating the prospects of an African economic renaissance in years to come, while a combination of global and local circumstances has pushed the continent back up the agenda for the global investment community.

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Before the financial crisis, the bigger and more liquid African economies were already becoming fashionable as frontier markets, following nearly a decade of growth brought about by improved policy, the accelerating engagement of emerging powers such as China and a related rise in commodity prices. Now, investors’ confidence is sustained by the fact that sub-Saharan African economies have rebounded from the crisis faster than much of the rest of the world.

Yet this growing literature on what some like to term a new scramble for Africa, referring back to the colonial carve-up that took place in the 19th century, is often one-dimensional. That is not an accusation that can be levelled at Ellis, who in a succinct 170 pages captures the broad spectrum of political, economic and social foundations that make Africa what it is today.

Africa recently became a continent of 1bn, after what has been the fastest population expansion in history. From being land-rich and labour-poor, it is now challenged by high levels of unemployment. But it is also a resource-rich consumer market that investors will find difficult to ignore.

Ellis is careful not to position himself in the futile debate between Afro-optimists and Afro-pessimists. The 48 diverse nations that make up sub-Saharan Africa are neither doomed to fail nor destined to succeed. But as he assesses the challenges of statehood, he is rightly under no illusion that governments will suddenly become more benevolent and less corrupt.

Rather, African states have been hollowed out by predatory elites and weakened by the ideological campaign against big government waged by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1980s, leaving space for religious, social and also criminal networks to expand their influence.

Many governments are themselves quasi-criminal and unable to articulate a genuine national interest. “Their objective is to generate income and other benefits for themselves and their supporters rather than to manage a whole society,” Ellis writes. There is the possibility too that in conformity with its history of perverse integration into world affairs, Africa “will increasingly function as the dark place of the global system, a continent where international codes function more in the breach than in the observance.”

Businesses from China and other emerging powers may be better equipped to function in this more informal setting, following what Ellis sees as the relative failure of Europe’s mission during colonial times, and more recently through development aid, to introduce effective rules-based systems.

Africa’s non-conformity with European ideas of progress does not, however, mean that there is no progress. The notion, still popular in the west, that Africa is a lost continent, somehow cut adrift from global moorings, is given short shrift in this provocative assessment, which manages to combine a deep understanding of the way in which history informs the present with an appreciation of the enormous change that globalisation is bringing.

The writer is FT Africa editor

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