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If progress in Africa could be measured by the frequency of elections, the continent might already be nearing Olympian form.
This year, 15 countries are scheduled to go to the polls compared with just two in 1990. The process and how it is conducted will be critical for Sudan, Ivory Coast, and Burundi, to name three potential flashpoints in sub-Saharan Africa where there is much more at stake than results.
Elections, however, have proved no panacea. The causes of conflict in Africa stubbornly persist and the political leadership in many countries remains wanting.
Other dynamics are nonetheless beginning to transform the continent and its relations with the outside world.
With the possible exceptions of Mauritius and of Guinea, which has just embarked on a fragile transition from military to civilian rule, it is unlikely that any of this year’s polls will lead to a change of leadership.
Two decades after the Cold War’s protagonists began cutting loose client dictators, peaceful transfers of power via the ballot box remain the exception. Potentially a greater game changer is instead coming from outside: China.
Before the global downturn washed up on African shores, trade and investment from China and other Asian countries were contributing to an unprecedented spurt of economic growth.
Trade between China and Africa rose to $107bn in 2008, up tenfold from a decade before. In the same period, Chinese funding of infrastructure and development in Africa grew to rival lending by multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
In some African countries there are now more Chinese immigrants than there were Europeans during colonial times.
The momentum was arrested in late 2008 by the global downturn. This has slowed foreign investment, crippled credit to the private sector, and knocked income from tourism and remittances. Many countries are back in the red, giving lenders an opportunity to regain a central role.
But China repeatedly emphasised its commitment to Africa even as growth slumped below the rate of population expansion. With commodity prices now recovering and confidence returning, China is in a more solid position than Africa’s traditional partners to pick up the pace.
China’s burgeoning interest in Africa has acted as a multiplier. Asian demand for African commodities improves trade terms. This in turn encourages other investors to look at Africa with different eyes, correcting what bankers describe as the ”undervaluation of African assets”.
On the heels of the Chinese, investors from Brazil, India, Russia, and other emerging markets have all been gearing up their relations with Africa. Inter-African business is also on the rise with some companies from South Africa, Nigeria, and to a lesser extent Kenya beginning to build continental scale.
The effect has been to shake up an old and fraying order dominated by cautious western donors and former colonial powers. A host of African leaders – most emphatically President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal – applaud the way China does business in Africa and have criticised the West for basing relations with the continent mainly on aid.
What remains uncertain is the impact that Africa’s changing relations with the outside world will have on the shape of its economic and political realities.
China bashers see in Beijing’s mercantilist expansion the same exploitative patterns that typified Africa’s past relations with Europe. They worry too that Beijing’s willingness to lend with no political strings attached is undermining Western proselytising about democracy and letting corrupt leaders off the hook just as governance was beginning to improve.
But hyperactive Chinese involvement in construction projects is helping to address infrastructure shortcomings holding up African growth. Competition for African resources meanwhile has given African states greatly increased bargaining power with foreign partners.
If the net result is higher growth, this is likely to further the expansion of the middle classes in Africa, the section of society most likely to demand greater accountability from leaders.
This is an issue that Barack Obama, the US president, made central on his first official visit to Africa last year. Speaking to Ghana’s national assembly, he emphasised that the continent’s moment of promise is one that Africans must seize for themselves.
The message of China’s premier Wen Jiabao’s at the China Africa summit in Egypt last year was not so different.
“Many people are trying to offer prescriptions for Africa’s development…yet it seems to me that Africa’s development should be based on its own conditions…In the final analysis, the development of a country depends on the efforts of its own people,” he said.
During the last “great game”, when Europe carved up the continent, the cards were stacked heavily against Africans. This great game, however, is very much Africa’s to lose.