Autocracy and Democracy in Africa: China’s Influence

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on December 10, 2017

I’ve been thinking about China’s growing influence in Africa, and whether it is linked to growing autocracy on the continent, especially the East Africa region. However, it is not China alone that seems to be informing a move towards authoritarianism in the region. When Africa is given examples of countries that managed to catch up economically, the Asian bloc is often presented as the case study. Look at Singapore, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, we’re told, they all managed to pull millions of out poverty and substantially improve the quality of life of their citizens in a relatively short period of time. What is not mentioned is that, for the most part, these countries were developed or are still developing under an autocratic state-led capitalism model where government drives and leads the articulation of capitalism and, to a greater or lesser extent, monitors and guides its evolution.

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(source: www4.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Beijing+Municipal+Congress+Communist+Party+AYzoNUVRU8Al.jpg)

Africa is also not told that even Europe and North America made significant economic gains using models that were not democratic. The USA relied on the slave trade and slave labour to build wealth that was then used to drive industrialisation. Much of Europe relied not only on financial involvement in the slave trade to amass wealth, but also colonialism which played an important role in providing colonial powers with land and labour that generated immense profits that were then repatriated to European metropoles.  So some are asking: Why is Africa being told that the continent must develop under a democracy when so many others haven’t? And is this the most efficient path towards economic development?

In East Africa, we can see a move towards autocracy; indeed it can be argued that Kenya is the only viable democracy left. Ethiopia and Rwanda have made no secret of the fact that they are essentially autocratic states. Uganda has been under the hand of Museveni for well over 30 years and in Burundi President Nkurunziza seems bent on retaining control and extending his autocratic rule beyond constitutional provisions. In Tanzania, signs of autocracy are emerging given that the chief whip of the opposition party was shot, and President Magafuli shut down several newspapers.

China has been making aggressive inroads in Africa with mega project deals. FILE PHOTO | NMG

(source: http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/image/view/-/4222430/medRes/1832547/-/maxw/960/-/g7bbas/-/china.jpg)

Beyond philosophical questions as to why there seems to be growing autocracy in the region, international dynamics are also playing a role, specifically growing insularity in Europe and North America. The Trump Administration hasn’t even bothered to table a strategy for Africa and Europe seems preoccupied with Brexit, anti-immigration sentiment, and calls to use European money on Europe rather than on ‘others’. As a result, the voice from the global north that lectures Africa on the merits of democracy is receding and the power vacuum is intensifying the influence of autocratic China in Africa. Indeed, the autocracy that is emerging in Africa seems to be modelled more against the technocratic autocracies of Asia rather than the old African autocratic model exemplified by leaders such as Idi Amin, Mobutu, Mengistu and more recently, Mugabe.

It seems it is time for Africa to ask itself some tough questions: Should growing autocracy be encouraged? And if so, what will it cost Africans in terms of freedom of expression, human rights and political freedom? Or is democracy, despite all its problems, still the best way forward for the continent?

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com


Burundi should ask Kenya about the cost of chaos

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This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on May 18, 2015

Last week, there was a coup attempt in Burundi linked to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term.

For heaven’s sake, has the region not learnt that, one, there is a delicate political balance underpinning regional stability and, two, political stability is a prerequisite for economic development? Whether one agrees with Mr Nkurunziza or not is not the issue but, as usual, the region and particularly the people of Burundi will accrue the collateral damage of this political instability.


(source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03304/bur-01_3304500b.jpg)

Academic research has established that recurrent episodes of social unrest affect households and their incomes, and that political instability plays a large role in economic underdevelopment. Burundi should dig a little and look into all the research done on how Kenya’s post-election violence (PEV) cost the country, not only in lives, but also economically.

One can argue the economy has not fully recovered. In fact, it would be useful to do an audit of just what PEV cost the economy as an illustrative example for the region. According to The Economist, PEV led to financial losses of approximately Sh22 billion (£145 million), around one per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Further studies estimate PEV had long-term effects and over the period 2007-2011 per capita GDP was reduced by an average of Sh8,200 per year, which is massive considering Kenya’s per capita averaged about Sh94,000 during the period.

Another study suggests that in 2009, the GDP was estimated to be about six per cent lower than if the chaos had not occured. Further, in 2007 (before the violence) foreign direct investment (FDI) stood at Sh70 billion and dropped almost 75 per cent to Sh18 billion in 2008. The latest figures (2013) put FDI at Sh50 billion. Clearly, Kenya is yet to fully recover.

Studies strongly indicate economic growth for countries with a high propensity of government collapse is significantly lower; even frequent Cabinet changes can reduce the annual real GDP per capita growth rate by 2.39 percentage points according to studies. Internal political instability (not associated with outside threats like terrorist groups) is particularly harmful through its adverse effect on total factor productivity growth and by discouraging physical and human capital accumulation. More specifically political instability cost Kenya international trade and reduced the country’s capacity to earn foreign exchange, especially in the cut-flower sector.

poor trade

(source: http://310627192.r.worldcdn.net/media/k2/items/cache/3f396c7768363e7b7d9739b221e18487_XL.jpg)

During the PEV, the short-term effect was a 24 per cent reduction in flower exports, a 38 per cent reduction in exports for firms in conflict-affected areas and a 50 per cent increase in worker absence. However, there were long-term consequences as well in that flower exports to the EU went from a growth rate of approximately three per cent annually to minus 2 per cent, a loss of Sh4 billion in 2010 alone.

The reality is that the relatively brief PEV led to significant shifts with long-term repercussions for international trade for the country; in the cut flower industry there was a decline in trust in Kenya on the part of the EU.

In short, it is clear Kenya and the region simply cannot afford political instability. It will be interesting to see how the attempted coup in Burundi plays out economically, but it will not be good news.

Ms Were is a development economist; email: anzetsew@gmail.com; twitter: @anzetse

The race for Regional Hub status in Eastern Africa

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