The world order has continuously been shaped and reshaped by the populace that carries the most resources. From the Stone and Iron ages, through papal times to modern day societies, the formation of new world orders has been largely influenced by shifts in economic power.

Historically, the need to hold economic power led to the lead actors on the world stage taking aggressive measures such as war and colonisation to secure it. These actions resulted in power exchanging hands between Western and European nations at the expense of weaker states, many on the African continent.

At the end of the colonial era Africa leaders took charge but that did not usher in a new dawn of independence for the continent. In her paper Political Leaders in Africa: Presidents, Patrons or Profiteers?academic Jo-Ansie van Wyk states: “The perception is that African leaders rule failed states that have acquired tags such as ‘corruptocracies’, ‘chaosocracies’ or ‘terrorocracies’.” At that time, African leaders not only had no vision for the future economic potential of the continent, but they also seemed more concerned with amassing wealth for themselves than uplifting the general populace.

It appears that the concept of selfish gain played a large factor when nations considered engaging with Africa.

At war with itself

As a result of this misguided leadership Africa faced one crisis after another. Countries like Angola went from liberation from colonial powers to a civil war between the two liberation parties, the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). This war would last for the better part of the next 27 years until the death of Jonas Savimbi in 2002 when a cease-fire was announced. The drawn-out conflict left the country in a state of chaos with more than four million people displaced and infrastructure destroyed.

While Angola was at war, Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda were facing their own crises with the devastating mass killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army in 1972. This sparked the 1993 genocide of Tutsis by the Hutus, which in turn then led to retaliation by the Hutus in 1994.

Corruption rules

War and conflict were not the only issues Africa had. Corruption and mismanagement saw many African economies struggling to grow. Those economies that stagnated were the lucky ones, as many were just failing dismally. Despite the continent being rich in minerals, oils and fertile land this failed to reap benefits for the people on the ground.

Developing African nations were poor, with no domestic savings, and no capital to inject into their economies. Years of war and strife left vital infrastructure, a necessity for new businesses to flourish, in terrible disrepair.

Democracy was an ideal that was not held in high regard on the continent. Human rights were violated and African leaders ruled over their subjects with iron fists. All this and more led to the international community marginalising the continent of Africa from political and economic affairs. The perception was there was not much the beleaguered continent could offer in terms of political and economic input.

Regardless, the world powers exploited the Africa’s resources to fuel their own agendas. Even international governing bodies such as the United Nations seemed to practice the policy of selective engagement, as they were less involved with African matters as they were with Euro-Western affairs.

On the global scene, while the rest of the world convened at G7 summits and economic forums to better their own economies, Africa was still labelled the slave continent, or simply associated with poverty and therefore excluded from global trade opportunities.

Living off foreign aid

During the post-colonial era most African nations still depended on their former colonisers for economic survival in areas such as trade, manufacturing and more importantly, employment. As a result aid was dished out to Africa with crippling effects. In her Wall Street Journal article Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa, journalist Dambisa Moyo notes: “the insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment.”

Africa was being stripped bare while she dropped further into debt and survived on hand-outs from the West.

Among others, the late Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of England, had no hope for an Africa led by Africans and labelled liberation groups against Apartheid in South Africa as terrorists. Many other leaders who had no time for African affairs echoed her sentiments and, when they looked at the goings-on on the continent, felt justified in their opinion.

Africa owed the largest debts to organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) but was excluded from being global economic decision-making processes.

To illustrate the extent to which Africa was the poor cousin to the other powers is a feature by The Economist magazine published a decade age, which labelled Africa as ‘the hopeless continent’, pointing towards the regions dark future and lack of progression.

The tide turns

Cut to the year 2011 and a recent publication of The Economist was branded with a cover titled ‘Africa Rising’ praising the continent on its flourishing economies. Other articles by various magazines have been published under similar titles such as ‘Welcoming African lions and bidding farewell to Asian tigers’ and ‘Investors jumping onto the Africa bandwagon. What has changed in the last decade that has dramatically altered the perceptions and relations of our international peers? How did an entire continent go from being hopeless to one of the largest emerging economies in the world?

It is no secret that Africa confronts many challenges and that its people are victim to stereotypes and misrepresentation. However it is important to note that the region is getting back on the saddle and regaining the reigns. According to the IMF at least eight of the top countries expected to show the highest growth rate in the world are from the sub-Saharan region. This includes Angola, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Not so long ago most of these countries were victim to international critique. Sierra Leone was sanctioned for its blood diamonds. Ethiopia was viewed as a country burdened with endless poverty. Angola was a war-torn nation.

The post-war reconstruction boom and resettlement of displaced persons in Angola has led to high rates of growth in the construction industry. Higher oil prices have helped Angola turn a budget deficit of 8.6% of GDP in 2009 into a surplus of 12% of GDP in 2012. Ethiopia is now one of the largest livestock producers in the world and became the second country after Japan to take delivery of the Boeing 787 passenger jet. Under President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has seen political stability and investment in infrastructure and this has started to yield results. On his return trip, Charles Robertson, chief economist for Africa at Renaissance Capital in London called the country “an African inspiration”. He went on: “The government wants Rwanda to become “a Singapore of Africa and it is succeeding”.

Consequently, this move from being the hopeless continent to an economic phenomenon has seen a resurgent and revived interest in the activities of Africa. 

There has been an evident power shift that has been amplified by the involvement of economic powerhouses such as the Republic of China. China has taken an interest in the African economy and has been investing in the operations and infrastructure, increasing investor confidence and fuelling the growth of national economies.

According to research by US AidData, China has committed US$ 75 billion to aid and projects in Africa in the past decade. The Asian dragons have become Africa’s biggest trading partner in the last few years. Growing trade with South Africa allowed for the country to be recruited into the BRICS coalition.

Africa is also helping herself. Dr Monty Marshall’s paper Conflict Trends in Africa, 1964 – 2004 shows that the number of civil wars being waged on the continent has fallen by about half since 1993. This peace and stability has resulted in the Africa becoming less dependent on Europe for economic relations and increasingly self-sufficient.

For instance, Zimbabwe has implemented an indigenisation policy where an indigenous national must own at least 51% of a company in any local business sector. In South Africa, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) ensures that citizens are given priority in business ventures before international partners.

Return to the motherland

Not surprisingly, the economic power shift has resulted in renewed interest from Europe. According to consul general Graça Gonçalves Pereira there has been a 30% to 40% increase in the number of Portuguese migrants choosing to move to Mozambique over the past two years.

African nationals that had migrated to first world countries are also opting to reclaim the opportunities that their countries have to offer in what has been dubbed the “Brain Gain”. Keenly aware of the potential that Africa is now showing they are coming back home armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience, which they are using to resurrect their flagging economies. There is fresh hope for Africa.

As all this is happening it is crucial for Africa and its citizens to keep their eye on the ball. What the world has learnt from situations such as the American economic depression or the European crises is that the success of economies is not constant and that change is dynamic.

Upcoming African leaders will need to be more transparent in their dealings. Corruption has no place in a strong and thriving economy. With so much to offer now Africa is at risk of being taken advantage of by international powers, which could lead to the Second Scramble for Africa. Over and above building their economies, Africans will have to fiercely protect their resources, economies and their wealth.

The success of the growth of Africa is still, in some cases, a statistical and theoretical projection on paper and it lies with Africans to ensure that it becomes reality by investing much-needed time and effort now in order to enjoy the benefits later.

Africa stands on the threshold of much success and all her citizens owe it to themselves to make it happen. For themselves, their children and their dignity.