The New Africa

The 2016 Camden Conference was devoted to Africa, the new Africa to be specific. Just what the new Africa meant was sometimes unclear but generally it was meant to distinguish it from "Africa: The Hopeless Continent", a much-remarked on cover story from the May 13th, 2000 issue of the Economist.

2000 represented the nadir of post colonial period of African history. All of the promise that greeted the independence movements of the late 1950's and 1960's had been replaced by the realization that most of Africa's independence movements had failed, replacing the largely English and French colonies with dictators and petty tyrants who managed to siphon off billions for families and friends, leaving little for critical infrastructure and education investments.

The message from the panelists at this year's Conference, most of whom were Africans, was "We can and must stand on our own." Many pointed to hopeful signs that this is happening. One young panelist spoke of the entrepreneurial efforts that are building new successful African companies in areas such as telecommunications and food production. Outside investment, much from China, has brought needed capital investment to the continent's mining and extraction industries. There is a growing middle class, a thriving film industry in Nigeria, and a blossoming of music and the arts across the continent.

Of course is it difficult to generalize about Africa because it is a vast and diverse landmass of some 54 countries and one billion people. Africa encompasses an area into which all of the United States, Europe, China, and India would fit.

Africa's economy is dominated by oil-rich Nigeria and mineral-rich South Africa. Countries like Ghana and Kenya also have economies of reasonable size but most of Africa is made up of relatively small countries with fragile economies and problematic governance.

In spite of the spirit of hope and optimism by most of the panelists, Africa remains a continent with enormous challenges. Two of the most concerning facts are that only 15% of students get beyond grammar school and the continent, in spite of vast tracts of arable land, only produces 15% of its food requirements.

With a growing population and almost two thirds of its people under the age of 30, virtually all sub- Saharan African countries are not able to produce sufficient new jobs. Unemployment is a continuing, growing problem.

Of course, there is also the issue of governance and corruption. In spite of gains in peaceful transitions of leadership, most recently in Nigeria, many African countries are ruled by strong men like Museveni in Uganda or Mugabe in Zimbabwe. They have elections, to be sure, like the recent one in Uganda, but the result is foreordained.

Government payrolls are bloated because this is where most of the money is. To do business with these governments requires layers of "commissions". The system is ubiquitous and saps the blood of many African economies.

Still many of those on the panel feel that a new chapter is being written as technology, investment, and the inevitable passage of the older generation of strong men. Is there a new Africa?

There were certainly moments at the Camden Opera House when this seemed possible. The Opera House, though, is a long way from Nairobi or Kinshasa. We may need another Camden Conference in 2026 to truly gauge whether we are witnessing a new Africa.