Africa’s Illusive Middle Class

Monday, 4 January 2016
Richard Dowden

Africa is no longer a continent of palaces and peasants. There is now a solid middle class, which is one of the chief factors that drove Africa’s economic growth from around 2000. This coincided with more aid for development, an end to many of the wars that had dogged the continent in the 1990s, Chinese demand for commodities, and internet connectivity with the rest of the planet.

These range of factors drove growth in the new century at more than 5%. In the 1970s, Africa grew at 4.2%, in the 1980s at 1.8%, and in the 1990s at 2.6%. High commodity prices – especially oil – gave countries like Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Libya growth rates over 7% between 2000 and 2010. Many non-oil countries were doing better too, in some instances thanks to the end of catastrophic wars. 

This created a new optimism about Africa. Africa Rising they called it. Some saw it as the new Asia, a soaring economic miracle that would transform the entire continent. The combination of minerals, agriculture and a new middle class drew investment from Europe and Asia and even from North America. Mobile phones meant that Africa could talk to the rest of the world. 

But last year China's economy slowed down, oil prices fell to $45 a barrel, and other mineral prices collapsed. That left only that final factor driving Africa’s growth – the middle class.

The top and the bottom of Africa’s pyramid of wealth are easy to define. At the top, a handful of people have made money honestly, but most have done so through political power. At the very top are the multi millionaire – if not billionaire - super-rich. These are mainly presidents, ministers and their cronies who control the corruption cartels. Much of that wealth is siphoned out of their countries in collaboration with non-African partners and banked in Europe or Asia. Continent-wide, these super rich probably number fewer than a thousand. They have palaces in Africa and palatial homes in Paris, London or other capitals.

At the bottom of the pile are the peasants and urban poor who live on less than two dollars a day and work long hours to stay alive. They will own a pair of repeatedly-repaired shoes, a pair of trousers and a shirt that hangs on a nail with possibly a second shirt for Sundays. Their home will be of sticks, mud and flattened tins for a door. Richer ones will have a bed. The rest will sleep on a grass mat on the floor. Thanks to cheap Chinese goods this class is better off than it was 20 years ago but the gap between rich and poor is still vast.

Who is in the middle? What do they do? The economic definition of middle class in Africa is so vague that it is almost meaningless. Outsiders’ definitions by income do not help. These are some estimates:

·       Standard Bank 2014: 7.6 million earning between $23 and $115 a day.

·       McKinseys 2008: 15.7 million earning more than $55 a day.

·       The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2014: 32 million earning between $10 and $100 a day

·       African Development Bank 2010: 327 million earning more than $2.2 a day.

Then there is Vijay Mahajan’s fantasy picture in his 2007 Africa Rising book proclaiming that Africa has 900 million consumers. I suppose if you count everyone who is lucky enough to eat every day as a 'consumer' and you then call all consumers 'middle class', then almost everyone can be counted.

My image of a typical middle class African is a man with a suit and tie who may be a teacher or a doctor, a businessman or a civil servant. At one time it was almost exclusively men, but several women have now joined the African middle class. She or he will have had more than 10 years education, they will speak English or French, possibly both, and be able to communicate in two or three local languages. Those at the higher end will have a university degree and a few will have been abroad for further education.

Their occupation will be civil servants, business entreprenuers or employees of large local or international companies. They will own a house and a car and will send their children to private schools. If they have the money these schools will be in Europe and America but, increasingly, middle class Africans send their children to India or other Asian countries. And in recent years there has been a rapid increase in good fee-paying schools in Africa itself. 

The most profound change in almost all African societies is the growth of the nuclear family and the slow death of the extended family. The first post-independence generation of African professionals found they had to share their incomes not just with their immediate family but for their extended families as well. Today the middle classes are gradually dropping these extended family obligations. Modern urban life means you look after your own children – two or three only – and you may pay for the funeral of a respected uncle or aunt. But you no longer pay school fees for children of distant cousins you barely know.

But few of Africa’s “middle class” rely simply on their salary as they would in Europe and America. In addition to the day job, many will inherit land which will produce food for the family and another source of income. Secondly they are well placed to buy land around the burgeoning towns and build on it. Many will exploit the dying family structure by employing poor members of the extended family as domestic servants or workers on the family estate. Thirdly they will have their private businesses. For example they may own two or three cars and hire drivers to use as taxis. None of this will be declared to the taxman. Nor will it appear in any World Bank of IMF figures. Whatever the surveys say the African middle class is much bigger and richer than anyone thinks.  

Richard Dowden is the Director of the Royal African Society.

Africa in 2016: Prospects & Forecasts

Wednesday, 13 January 2016 - 6:30pm to 8:30pm


Date & Time: Wednesday 13 January 2016, 18:30-20:30

Venue: Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG

Listen to podcast

Introduction by Zeinab Badawi, Chair of the RAS

Speakers: Patrick Smith, Chief Editor, The Africa Report & Editor, Africa Confidential; Razia Khan, Chief Economist, Africa, Standard Chartered; Fatimah Kelleher, International Women's Rights and Social Development Consultant; Dele Meiji Fatunla, Head of Communications & Editor of WhatsOn Africa, RAS. Chair: Audrey Brown, journalist, BBC Worldservice


Global and local events in the run up to 2016 present varying opportunities and challenges for African governments and their citizens.

Protests have been a significant feature of the African political landscape for the past century, but now a new wave of youth-led protests are sweeping through the continent in countries such as South Africa and the Republic of Congo. Will these protests succeed in transforming issues such as unemployment and socio-economic exclusion? What will be the long term implications of movements such as #FeesMustFall?

Being the world’s second largest economy, China’s slowdown is likely to affect African countries. The slowing demand for exports from China is already taking place, contributing to the rapid fall in value of South Africa’s rand. How will the slowdown for natural resources affect oil-dependent economies such as Nigeria and Angola? Can African policymakers use this opportunity to make a big push for regional integration and industrialisation?

Exploring contemporary challenges against this backdrop are the continent’s artists and writers. Independent publishing houses continue to be established across Africa transforming the African literary scene with popular fiction from sci-fi to digitally consumed romantic fiction.

Join our panel of experts as they discuss all of the above and more in our annual not-to-be-missed event that sheds light on the key issues facing the continent for the year ahead.


Please confirm your attendance for this event by registering on Eventbrite.






The Niger Delta: a future without conflict?

Wednesday, 9 December 2015 - 6:00pm to 7:30pm


Date & Time: Wednesday 9 December, 18:00-19:30

Venue: UCL Common Ground, South Wing, Wilkin's Building, Gower St, London WC1E 6BT

Speakers: Brigadier General Paul Boroh, Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Programme for the Niger Delta; Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, journalist, writer and political risk consultant; Murray Last, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UCL; Joseph Hurst-Croft, Director, Stakeholder Democracy Network

Chair: Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society; Host: Professor Kevin MacDonald, UCL Institute of Archaeology

The Niger Delta, an area of swamps, creeks, waterways and lowland rainforest, covers approximately 75,000 square kilometres and includes 9 states and a population of about 30 million people. It is the world’s eighth largest oil exporter, and seventh largest source of natural gas reserves. The Niger Delta typifies a modern conflict zone, repeated low-intensity conflicts are driven by a powerful mixture of corruption, underdevelopment, poverty and violence.

The region shot to international attention in 2004 with the outbreak of a violent militancy crisis. Militants fought with government forces, sabotaged oil installations, took foreign oil workers hostage and demanded oil revenue concessions to go to groups within the Delta. In August 2009 the Nigerian government halted the crisis through the set-up of an Amnesty programme which promised training, employment and government pardon for the surrender of weapons. According to the government 8,000-15,000 gunmen surrendered their weapons, however many militants are still untrained and unemployed, and the grievances behind militancy have yet to be addressed.

As the new administration attempts to translate the amnesty’s short term success for long term stabilisation, violence in the Niger Delta is increasing and former militant youth are re-arming. Join Brigadier General Paul Boroh, Chairman of the Presidential Amnesty Programme for the Niger Delta, and a panel of experts as they assess the programme and explore the opportunities and challenges for ending militancy and building peace in the Niger Delta. 


This event has been organised in collaboration with Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN) and UCL African Studies Research Centre

As we have limited capacity for this event, registration is advised. Please confirm your attendance on Eventbrite




'Orphaned Memory: Rwandan Artists and Intergenerational Absence' with Dr Zoe Norridge

Tuesday, 8 December 2015 - 6:30pm to 8:00pm

Date & Time: Tuesday 8 December 2015, 6:30-8:00pm

Venue: UCL Institute of Archaeology, Room 612 (6th Floor), 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY

Speakers: Dr Zoe Norridge, senior lecturer in English and Comparative Literature, King's College London; Kivu Ruhorahoza, screenwriter, director and producer. 

Chair: Professor Kevin MacDonald, UCL Institute of Archaeology 


Dr Zoe Norridge is a Senior Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at King’s College London. Her research currently focuses on cultural responses to genocide in Rwanda. In April 2014 she curated the exhibition "Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now" for the twentieth commemoration with Mark Sealy MBE in the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing. Selected as a BBC “New Generation Thinker” in 2011, her Radio 3 documentary “Living With Memory in Rwanda” won a Gold New York Festivals International Radio Program Award.

Her first monograph, Perceiving Pain in African Literature (2013) examined literary accounts of suffering from sub-Saharan Africa published over the last forty years. Considering both fiction and life-writing, it explores texts from West Africa, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Southern Africa, asking how and why African writers represent pain. She is an Associate Editor of Wasafiri literary magazine and a member of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Experts' Reference Group.

Join us as Dr Zoe Norridge discusses how Rwandan artists in their twenties and thirties are exploring the legacies of the genocide in Rwanda, twenty-one years later. Paying particular attention to the transmission (or lack of transmission) of memories across generations, Zoe will begin by discussing young photographers who grew up in the Imbabazi orphanage and recently participated in a Arts and Humanities Recearch Council funded project sharing intergenerational memories between Argentina, Rwanda and Northern Ireland. Their work will be set alongside wider trends in contemporary writing, film, theatre and music.


This event is part of the Heritage & Politics series, organised in collaboration with the UCL African Studies Research Centre

Please register for this event on Eventbrite




Bigger than the nation: a regional & community approach to heritage in the Horn of Africa with Dr Sada Mire

Thursday, 19 November 2015 - 6:30pm to 8:00pm

Date & Time: Thursday 19 November, 18:30-20:00

Venue: UCL Common Ground, South Wing, Wilkin's Building, Gower St, London WC1E 6BT


Dr Sada Mire is a Somali-born Swedish archaeologist, living and working in the UK and Somaliland. She lived the first fifteen years of her life in Mogadishu, until 1991, when she settled in Sweden, as a result of the conflict in Somalia. In order to learn about the history of her new society, she studied archaeology and zoo-archaeology at Lund University. She continued her studies at SOAS for her B.A. and then at UCL for her M.A. and Ph.D., conducting field research in Somaliland.

Sada is currently advisor to and former Director of the Republic of Somaliland’s Department of Tourism & Archaeology, which she founded in 2007. She is founder and executive director of the Horn Heritage Organization. Sada is Associate Tutor at Sainsbury Research Unit (UEA), and affiliated with also SOAS and UCL. In addition, Sada has worked as a Technical Assistant for the United Nations Development Program in Somaliland on cultural resource management and capacity building. Sada has conducted fieldwork in several European and African countries – including U.K., Denmark, Sweden, to Kenya and African countries including Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia as well as lectured at UK universities.

In this special lecture launching the Politics & Heritage series organised in collaboration with UCL, Dr Sada Mire will discuss the politics of colonialism and nation-building and its impact on heritage management and archaeological research. She will explore case studies of local community engagement in heritage and innovative local heritage approaches in the Horn of Africa, suggesting ways forward in bringing regional heritage into focus rather than national heritage.


All are welcome, registration is not required for this event. 

For more information on the series, please visit  the UCL website.



Hearing communities in health crises: lessons from Ebola

Monday, 2 November 2015
APPG guest blog from Maisy Grovestock at Polygeia

The recent West African Ebola epidemic has drawn global attention to the challenges of generating an effective health crisis response. Polygeia’s researchers have been working with the Africa All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) to consider the role of communities in the recent Ebola epidemic and to examine the lessons for community engagement in health crises and health systems strengthening.

Communities have been shown to play a crucial role in the acceptance, effectiveness, and ultimate success of the response. Yet, initial approaches by Ebola responders and the international community did not sufficiently prioritise community engagement [1].

Africa APPG and Polygeia worked with Restless Development in Sierra Leone and the Public Health Development Initiative (PHDI) to conduct 23 key informant (KIs) interviews with community leaders to gain their insight into the role of communities in the Ebola response. One key informant was Samuel Borbor Vandi, a NGO worker from Kailahun District, Sierra Leone.

Samuel described the missing link between communities and NGO’s when he said:

“…most agencies do not spend a lot of time in communities, particularly vulnerable communities, so it has been difficult for them to know the real issues posing threat to the lives of community people…organisations need to spend more time to discuss with community people regarding issues that affect them, and involve them in developing the design of the project.”

The medical response of prevention and treatment also requires successful community engagement [1]. Basic Ebola response activities such as contact tracing were restricted by rumours, mistrust and resistance [2]. By bypassing communities, Ebola responders forfeited opportunities to counteract mistrust and to increase the social legitimacy of infection control measures. Consultation with communities during planning stages facilitates the design of health programmes that are responsive to need and relevant to the social context [3]. A clear example of the importance of engaging communities in the planning of health interventions is visible in the redesign of Ebola treatment units (ETUs). Acceptance of ETUs and a sense of ownership of the facilities grew when communities’ legitimate concerns were addressed by involving them in all stages including design, site selection and construction [4].

The media narrative surrounding Ebola highlighted initial clashes between medically safe burials and many local and religious practices, which resulted in families hiding the bodies of the deceased from public health authorities [4]. However, secret burials were in part a parallel response to safe burials generated by inadequate attention to community priorities. The WHO eventually recognised this by instituting safe burials which recognised the importance of maintaining the dignity of the deceased [5]. Community-led approaches to health typically differ from standard practice insofar as they regard communities as co-partners in the provision of health information and services rather than as passive beneficiaries [6].

On Saturday 14 November we will be presenting our research and recommendations at Polygeia’s annual global health conference. Our report draws on qualitative research highlighting local perspectives on the Ebola response and submitted evidence from organisations working on the ground to recommend the promotion of community ownership of response efforts during health crises and in health systems strengthening.

We will also be running a workshop to give participants the opportunity to analyse programmes used in the Ebola epidemic, to consider their theoretical underpinnings and reflect on alternative solutions to the problems encountered. Through this exercise participants will develop a greater understanding of the concept of ‘community ownership’ and the significance of community engagement in health crises.

Our report Community engagement in health crisis response and health systems strengthening: lessons from Ebola will be published in November 2015. We hope to see you at the Polygeia Conference to further discuss responses to health crises that recognise the resources communities offer as experts on their social context.


Maisy Grovestock is a recent Cambridge graduate with an interest in access to medicines and research and development policy. She has previously worked on projects for the NHS and for Médecins Sans Frontières Access Campaign.



[1] Restless Development. Written evidence on community led health systems & the Ebola outbreak – Submission. 2015;(June):1–18.


[2] Kutalek R, Wang S, Fallah M, Wesseh CS, Gilbert J. Ebola interventions: listen to communities. Lancet Glob Heal [Internet]. Elsevier; 2015 Jan 21 [cited 2015 Feb 12];3(3):e131. Available from:


[3] Institute of Development Studies. Response to Africa APPG inquiry: Call for written evidence on community led health, Submission from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). p. 499–501.


[4] International Rescue Committee. Communities and Health in the Ebola Epidemic [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Jul 5]. Available from:


[5] How to conduct safe and dignified burial of a patient who has died from suspected or confirmed Ebola virus disease [Internet]. [cited 2015 Oct 30]. Available from:


[6] African Diaspora Healthcare Professionals for Better Health in Africa initiative. Response to Africa APPG inquiry: Call for written evidence on community led health.


Image Credit: Community Ofrenda, Flickr

40 years of hurt: The never-ending scandal of the Western Sahara

Friday, 6 November 2015
Richard Dowden

Forty years ago today (6 November), Morocco invaded Western Sahara, a former Spanish colonial possession – mostly made up of desert – in West Africa.

As Spain walked away, Morocco claimed the territory as part of its ancient empire. The UN had declared that it was up to the people of the territory to decide their own future, but before they could do so, King Hassan II of Morocco organised the “Green March” in which hundreds of Moroccans were bussed to the border and – in front of the international press – pushed into Western Sahara waving Moroccan flags.

Meanwhile, many miles away from the media, columns of tanks, armoured cars and truck-loads of Moroccan soldiers swept into the territory. So too did troops from neighbouring Mauritania which also claimed swathes of ground.

These foreign troops were met by indigenous fighters of the Polisario Front who were lightly armed and no match for tanks and artillery. Gradually, the Polisario fighters and thousands of civilians were pushed over the border into Algeria.

Morocco ignored international calls for it to withdraw and even left the Organisation of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union) when the continent body declared the occupation illegal.

Polisario kept up the fight and by 1979 managed to force Mauritania to retreat. But Morocco refused to be moved and instead constructed a vast wall of sand and rock and planted mines the entire length of it in order to protect its illegally acquired territory.

40 years later, little has changed. Morocco retains control over the area and to this day huge numbers of Sahrawi refugees live in white tents across the border in Algeria. The Government of Algeria estimates that there are now 165,000 people in the camps, but there has never been an agreed registration exercise. The UN refugee agency’s assistance programme is based on a planning figure of just 90,000 refugees.

By coincidence, in the same year as the invasion of Western Sahara, the tiny pacific territory of East Timor – abandoned by its Portuguese imperial rulers – was seized by neighbouring Indonesia. However, while Indonesia was forced to accept a UN ruling in 2002 when East Timor became independent, Morocco’s territorial grab has been persistently protected by France and, to an extent, the US.

The forgotten war

The Western Sahara is rich in phosphates and fish. Its prolific waters are fished – over-fished say some – by European trawlers without oversight.

Relations between Algeria and Morocco have always been bad. Regional rivals, they were on opposite sides in the Cold War; Algeria was backed by the Soviet Union, Morocco by France and the US. The end of the Cold War made little difference to this regional rivalry.

In 1987, I made a film for the UK’s Chanel4 about Western Sahara called The Forgotten War. Even then, the region’s plight was already a distant memory in the international imagination.

We first travelled to the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, then drove across the desert to the border in Land Rovers accompanied by Polisario fighters. Wiry, sharp-eyed and tough, they relished the chance to lob some mortar shells over the wall. We parked the vehicles in a deep gully and crept onto a low ridge opposite the wall. The fighters behind us pumped mortar shells over our heads and we filmed them hitting the wall on the ridge over a mile way.

What we didn’t know was that the Americans had just provided Morocco with ground radar. The Moroccan army’s response was fierce and uncomfortably accurate. The Polisario fighters, determined to prove their bravery – or at least test ours – led us into a shallow valley where they proceeded to light a fire and brew tea.

Most of the Sahrawi refugees who live in five camps near Tindouf are totally dependent on humanitarian assistance. All around is empty desert where rain is rare. Opportunities for income generation were virtually non-existent, but some people kept goats or try to grow vegetables with brackish water by hand from deep wells.

This is the life that the Saharawis have been forced to live. Meanwhile, King Hassan II built new towns on the coast of Western Sahara and brought thousands from Morocco to live and work in them.

In Rabat, I conducted an interview with the speaker of parliament in which he angrily admitted that Morocco imprisoned and tortured those who spoke up for an independent Saharwi republic.

Waiting for the vote

In 1991, a ceasefire was agreed and under the auspices of the UN, a referendum was scheduled for 1992. The vote, however, was postponed again and again and has still never taken place.

In 2000, Jim Baker, the US Secretary of State, tried to revive the process and get agreement between Morocco, Algeria and Polisario to a staged process involving a referendum after five years.

Getting agreement from the clan leaders or even establishing which clan leaders could be counted as true Saharwis was very difficult, not least because they are traditionally nomadic and did not recognise borders. Morocco took advantage of this ambiguity, demanding a say in who was a clan leader and lavishing money on those who were prepared to say they were Moroccan. Speaking to these leaders, I noticed their answers were much more formulaic than the Saharwi clan leaders in the camps in the desert.

Nevertheless, for a while, it looked as if the Americans were going to take control of the issue from the French, but their plan to allow everyone living in the territory to vote was rejected by Polisario.

A few years later in 2003, another attempt was accepted by Polisario but sidelined by Morocco. No pressure from the US or France was made to get the King to comply. The international effort to establish who was qualified to vote and getting them registered foundered. In the end the referendum never took place.

Over the past 40 years then, two generations of Saharawis have been born and grown up in sand-blown tented camps while international efforts have stalled and their colonists in Morocco have flourished economically.

For Africa, the UN and the powers in the Security Council, the unresolved situation in the Western Sahara is an embarrassment.  For the Saharwis, it is a profound injustice.

Richard Dowden is the Director of the Royal African Society.

For more on this topic see:

‘Kenya’s wildlife – Predictions for the next decade’ with Dr Richard Leakey

Monday, 9 November 2015 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm

‘Kenya’s wildlife – Predictions for the next decade’ with Dr Richard Leakey

Date & Time: Monday 9 November 2015, 6pm-8pm

Venue: Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, SOAS University

Listen to podcast


Speaker: Dr Richard Leakey, paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician

Respondents: H.E. Lazarus Amayo, High Commissioner for Kenya; Charlie Mayhew MBE, CEO of Tusk. Chaired by Richard Dowden, Director, Royal African Society


The international commercial ivory trade has been banned since 1989, yet growing demands for ivory and rhino horn from the Far East and increased activity from terrorists and criminal gangs, has resulted in an unprecedented increase in poaching in recent years. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the African elephant population dropped from 550,000 in 2006 to 470,000 in 2013, East African countries have seen the worst decline; numbers fell from 150,000 to about 100,000 during the seven year period.

Richard Leakey, renowned Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician, will once again lead anti-poaching efforts in his home country as Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Formerly called the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD), Richard Leakey was appointed head of the organisation back 1989 by President Arap Moi. At the time there were just 12,000 elephants left in Kenya, Richard Leakey was instrumental in dramatically reducing poaching in the country by transforming the corrupt and bankrupt WMCD, mobilising international funding and militarising Kenya’s wildlife services.

In light of the recent increase in illicit wildlife trade, Richard Leakey’s appointment earlier this year, was greeted with enthusiasm, as well as apprehension in the face of the challenges that lie ahead. In a recent article in the Daily Nation, Leakey stated: “it’s not a job I wanted or that I relished, or that I am grateful for. But I will do it.” Join us for this special event organised in collaboration with The Kenya Society, as Richard Leakey shares his predictions for the future of Kenya’s fragile asset. 


To confirm your attendance, please register on Eventbrite




Africa in 2015 – a mixed picture

Thursday, 8 October 2015
Richard Dowden

Africa suffers from adjectives: hopeless, dark, rising. Good or bad they are all wrong and should be banned. The only adjectives we should use these days should convey only the size and complexity of the continent. Vast, varied and complex are fine.

At the Financial Times Africa Conference on Monday the mood began gloomily with talk of the collapse of oil and mining prices. Ivan Glasenberg, the CEO of Glencore, the world’s biggest mining company whose shares are now almost junk, was the opening speaker. He blamed hedge funds and other mining houses for pushing down the price of commodities. He told rival miners to shut unprofitable mines to keep the price up. They must be smirking. Welcome to capitalism Mr Glasenberg!

For those who thought that Africa was simply a pile of raw commodities waiting to be exploited and exported this was a depressing start to the conference. All African countries produce minerals and about 20 are – or are about to become – serious oil producers. After the devastation of African economies by the IMF and World Bank reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, very few African countries produced anything else except minerals. But that has all changed. Mobile phones and banking services are leading the way and creating wealth for a new middle class. At the rest of the FT Conference, speaker after speaker talked up the continent’s dynamism and immense prospects. The gloom of that first session soon lifted.

By coincidence, on the same day the Mo Ibrahim Foundation launched its 2015 Index of African governance. Of the continent’s 54 nation states, 33 are doing better, 21 are doing worse, and the headline is that human rights and human development are doing better but safety and the rule of law and economic opportunity are doing worse. 

On “Sustainable Economic Opportunity”, the index shows 29 countries declining this year. Some, like Angola, are oil producers affected by the collapse of its price. Others, like Namibia and Botswana, rely on other mineral exports. Countries rich in minerals like South Sudan and Libya are wrecked by war although Somalia, which has been at war since the late 1980s, is improving. And among the countries with declining economic opportunity there are countries whose economies are more diverse – for example Uganda, Ethiopia and Tunisia.

The World Bank predicts that sub-Saharan Africa’s growth will be 4.2% this year, down a little from last year, but picking up to 5% in 2017. If you discount two points for the rise in population, that is still better than much of the rest of the world. Of the three biggest economies, Nigeria and Angola are hit by the fall in the oil price, and South Africa is in the doldrums under a government which lacks vision and leadership.

What is fascinating is to see that the bottom quartile of the governance index contains eight of Africa’s oil producers. The others at the bottom of the list have – or have recently had – civil wars. No surprise that Somalia, South Sudan and Central African Republic are all in the bottom quartile.  But there are only three oil producers in the top quartile, and all of them were well-established democracies before the oil was discovered. Oil can be profoundly anti-democratic because rulers come to depend on oil traders for their budgets, rather than taxes from the people.

Wars in Africa have declined steadily in number and intensity since 2000 but what the index calls “Safety and the Rule of Law” has got worse this year. Even in the top ranked countries – Mauritius, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Namibia, Seychelles and Ghana – security has got worse. It has also worsened in 31 others, some through state breakdown like in Somalia, others through state terrorism against its own citizens or a power struggle at the top as in Burundi.

24 countries have declined in the “Participation and Human Rights” which is hardly surprising but worrying because since more and more young people will be leaving school and finding there is no employment, they will drift to the towns where they will see the luxurious lifestyle of their rulers. This may lead to demands for a better life. But the Index also shows that in 30 countries sustainable economic opportunities are also declining.

The reasons for this are clear. Chinese economic engagement in Africa is reducing although there will be no sudden withdrawal. And the strength of the dollar means that remittances may decline too. So if this does not turn around soon I suspect the newly urban young will fight for change. The only good news here is that both in Nigeria and South Africa, the biggest economic drivers of the continent’s economy, opportunities are improving. And the decline in investment from outside the continent may mean that wealthy Africans who keep their money offshore or in London or New York may start to bring it back. More African entrepreneurs may emerge to fill the gap. Any further generalisation about Africa’s economies is hard to make. Mixed and unpredictable are the only appropriate adjectives for Africa in 2016. 

Does the UK finally have an Africa policy?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Richard Dowden

Is the UK government at long last beginning to grope towards a new relationship with Africa? The decision to send troops – in a non-combat role – to Somalia and South Sudan, as well as Prime Minister David Cameron’s recommitment to spending 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income on aid, are a demonstration of a renewed commitment to Africa. But both those conflicts have been going on for some time, so why now? The timing suggests that Cameron feels the need to justify the UK’s position on the UN Security Council when he addresses the UN General Assembly. He has also decided to visit Nigeria and Kenya next year. 

This comes at a time when the UK has no full-time minister for Africa. James Duddridge has sadly been ill for the past few months but hopes to return to the job shortly. Standing in for him is Grant Shapps, the Minister of State at the Department for International Development (DfiD) and MP for Welwyn Hatfield. His website, however, does not mention Africa at all. It explains that he has saved the 797 bus replacement service in Stevenage and supports a knitting campaign for Syrian refugees. It also points out that he has maintained public access for Bunchley’s Pond and supported “a care4acuppa fundraising tea party campaign for the Isabel Hospice with an Alice in Wonderland promotion day”. Fascinating stuff and vital for him to be re-elected by the people of Hatfield, but nowhere on his website does the word Africa appear.

In all the administrations since Tony Blair’s premiership, DfID has been the lead ministry dealing with Africa. This does not go down well on the continent. Their leaders generally do not like being regarded as a basket case dependent on aid. They want to be treated as equals. The other institution dealing with Africa is UK Trade and Industry, promoting business in Africa.

But aid and business do not amount to a policy. The Foreign Office, the department that is supposed to understand global politics and guide Britain’s role in the international power play, was reduced in Africa. It now has a presence in 35 countries out of Africa’s 54.

Aid is useful for programmes such as immunisation and clean water, but the idea that aid will transform Africa’s economies is false. Only Africans themselves can engineer that transformation. Governments need to raise taxes to spend on health, education and infrastructure, and make the right strategic decisions to attract investment that helps create jobs. But many African governments and their officials tend to suck up their nations’ wealth and keep it at the top or even send it out of the country. A few – Botswana for example – has used aid and loans it to invest and create more wealth. Countries like Kenya and Nigeria, which Cameron will be visiting next year, have created layers of devolved government that have become drains of wealth that suck up the money and pipe it to politicians, bureaucrats and their chosen business partners. The wealth does not trickle down. It trickles up. It’s not the economy that creates this. It’s the politics, stupid.

Aid should be used to support good policies, but countries that have good policies and are also less corrupt and dictatorial. These are rare and they do not need aid for long. A few countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, have good development policies but weak democratic institutions and almost no respect for human rights and the rule of law. This creates a dilemma for donors. If recipient governments start to suppress human rights, indulge in anti-democratic policies or become unacceptably corrupt, aid should be withheld. At least that is the theory. In practice, these countries, aware that the UK must – by law - spend the 0.7% aid money, now have the whip hand.

The UK and other donors are very reluctant to cut aid, not least because they cannot then reach their spending targets. As a result, much of it is given to the World Bank which does not have a great record for delivery or value of money.

So to be effective in Africa, it is essential for the UK to understand its politics. That means employing diplomats to analyse fiendishly complicated political realities and trace the myriad informal but powerful connections that lie beneath to surface. Several UK Africa ministers I have known have admitted glumly that African leaders know and understand UK politics far better than we understand theirs. And African governments are often quick to play the anti-colonial card when Western countries try to apply moral pressure. When President Uhuru Kenyatta was summoned to the International Criminal Court after the 2008 post-election violence, he whipped up a nationalist campaign against the West, which he accused of neo-colonialism and manipulating the prosecutor.

Next door, Yoweri Museveni, now in power since 1986, has flipped the relationship with the UK by sending his troops into regional wars as peacekeepers. No Western countries want to have front line troops in Somalia or South Sudan so he gets a lot of aid and Western support.

Aid is useful for programmes around things such as health and education. But the idea that aid will transform Africa’s economies is false, and I even have some sympathy with the idea that aid slows or prevents essential changes. Only African leaders can engineer the transformation their countries need. When that happens, the need for aid will be over.