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When I first started talking about the potential for investment and business opportunities in Africa some 20 years ago, I found myself an isolated voice. That turned out to be good for me – and the few others who saw, invested, and reaped wonderful rewards from that potential – but not so good for the continent.
A narrative that branded Africa as little more than an economic, political and social basket case was not likely to provide the investment needed to drive development.
After a startling transformation, Africa is now seen as a rare source of optimism. The continent’s recent record of GDP growth looks set to continue.
At the recent US-Africa Leaders Summit, it was striking to see the very strong representation from the American private sector. The business forum co-hosted by Michael Bloomberg brought leaders such as Jeffrey Immelt and David Rubenstein together to discuss Africa’s investment potential. This was an unprecedented and powerful advertisement for doing business on the continent.
However, just at the moment that the African narrative was finally shifting away from poverty, disease and corruption to one of dynamism and opportunity, the twin challenges of rising extremism – in particular Boko Haram– and the Ebola virus came to dominate the news headlines. These events seemed to contradict the “Africa Rising” narrative.
There is, however, a common thread of governance connecting the continent’s successes and its challenges. Increasing extremism – across Africa and the world – must be understood in the context of the failure of our leaders properly to manage diversity within their borders. As Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, powerfully articulated during the recent UN general assembly, “missiles might kill terrorists, but good governance kills terrorism”.
Insufficient care was taken to ensure that Africa’s economic growth was inclusive, equitable and job-creating, particularly for young people. We are now seeing the consequences of that. Better governance is the only sustainable solution to our peace and security challenges.
With regard to the Ebola virus, it is clear that the Mano River region faces an unprecedented public health crisis. The political will and resources to meet this threat need to be mobilised. But it is important both to understand why Ebola is taking such a toll and to put it in broader context.
Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are in a post-conflict region, so they confront Ebola with fragile governance structures. Their presidents have shown strong leadership in tackling the virus but lack the resources to respond. Mortality rates among the infected are high, not only because of the virus itself, but because of the state of the healthcare systems in the affected countries.
This is highlighted by the success of Senegal and Nigeria, both with more robust healthcare infrastructures, in containing the disease.
We must do everything we can to help the affected countries with this health issue, but we should be very careful not to make matters worse by taking measures to hurt their economies. Already, the closing of borders and cessation of flights to the affected countries is having a hugely damaging effect. Projected food shortages are creating the possibility of a humanitarian crisis.
In a subregion emerging from conflict, the danger of backsliding towards social unrest and even violence is ever-present.
While observing all the World Health Organisation-mandated protocols for containment of this outbreak, we must attempt as far as possible to normalise trade and travel to those countries. We must target the disease, not the citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Africa is and remains open for business. The fight against Ebola cannot undermine the fight against poverty. There are 50 African countries with no incidence of Ebola. Africa should not again face isolation or stigmatisation based on ignorance and unrepresentative imagery.
The understandable fear that this disease generates must be confronted by logic and humanity.
When we view the continent through the prism of good governance, rather than fear and crude stereotypes, we can reconcile these seemingly conflicting views of Africa – on the one hand full of potential, on the other facing serious problems.
As Africa rises, our ability to face our greatest challenges will be determined by how strong, inclusive and equitable are our institutions.
The lesson to take from recent events is that good governance underlies our successes and bad governance explains our problems. Therefore it is this good governance agenda that should bring us all into alignment – citizens, civil society, government and business, both local and international – to ensure that Africa continues to rise and takes us all along with it.
Mo Ibrahim is a Sudanese-British mobile communications entrepreneur and chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation