Africa’s new middle class demands new politics

Africa is changing. Across the continent, robust urbanization, strong population growth, and sound economic policies are contributing to the development of an indigenous middle class. While this trend clearly interests multinational corporations hoping to tap into a new and growing market, the improving economic situation, changing consumer preferences, and the rise of a middle class ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images

Africa is changing. Across the continent, robust urbanization, strong population growth, and sound economic policies are contributing to the development of an indigenous middle class. While this trend clearly interests multinational corporations hoping to tap into a new and growing market, the improving economic situation, changing consumer preferences, and the rise of a middle class may also deepen democracy in the region, albeit unevenly across the continent.

A decade of sustained economic growth (averaging between 4 percent and 7 percent annually in sub-Saharan Africa) is translating into higher per capita GDP and rising discretionary incomes that is helping build a middle class. The IMF forecasts 5.5 percent growth this year and nearly 6 percent next year for the region. In 2015, the average GDP per capita in 22 sub-Saharan African countries will exceed $2,000, according to the IMF. That level is an important threshold, representing the point at which people begin to demand basic consumer items, in addition to satisfying their basic needs.

The emergence of a middle class has important political implications. It has the potential to transform governments and encourage greater accountability and reform. In most cases, pressure from the middle class is unlikely to secure sweeping political reform of autocratic governments in the short term (as in Egypt). But it may result in a more welcoming business climate, better access to credit, and improved service delivery. Middle-class citizens, especially entrepreneurs with a stake in economic reform, are the most likely to push back against revenue-draining state monopolies, excessive red tape, and elite capture of industries. The poor are too busy simply surviving and the rich often have a stake in the status quo. Middle-class constituencies can and sometimes do bolster protectionist policies or union obstructionism to needed reforms (witness South Africa's public sector unions), but the same can be said of the world's most developed economies. In general, middle-class interests will help to galvanize economic and political reforms far more than pressure from other countries, donors, and multinational institutions.

Africa is changing. Across the continent, robust urbanization, strong population growth, and sound economic policies are contributing to the development of an indigenous middle class. While this trend clearly interests multinational corporations hoping to tap into a new and growing market, the improving economic situation, changing consumer preferences, and the rise of a middle class may also deepen democracy in the region, albeit unevenly across the continent.

A decade of sustained economic growth (averaging between 4 percent and 7 percent annually in sub-Saharan Africa) is translating into higher per capita GDP and rising discretionary incomes that is helping build a middle class. The IMF forecasts 5.5 percent growth this year and nearly 6 percent next year for the region. In 2015, the average GDP per capita in 22 sub-Saharan African countries will exceed $2,000, according to the IMF. That level is an important threshold, representing the point at which people begin to demand basic consumer items, in addition to satisfying their basic needs.

The emergence of a middle class has important political implications. It has the potential to transform governments and encourage greater accountability and reform. In most cases, pressure from the middle class is unlikely to secure sweeping political reform of autocratic governments in the short term (as in Egypt). But it may result in a more welcoming business climate, better access to credit, and improved service delivery. Middle-class citizens, especially entrepreneurs with a stake in economic reform, are the most likely to push back against revenue-draining state monopolies, excessive red tape, and elite capture of industries. The poor are too busy simply surviving and the rich often have a stake in the status quo. Middle-class constituencies can and sometimes do bolster protectionist policies or union obstructionism to needed reforms (witness South Africa’s public sector unions), but the same can be said of the world’s most developed economies. In general, middle-class interests will help to galvanize economic and political reforms far more than pressure from other countries, donors, and multinational institutions.

A strong middle class also has other political benefits. At best, it fosters an active civil society and in some cases checks on executive power, providing a constituency for moderation at times of intense political stress. In the bloody aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 elections, it was civil society groups such as local NGOs, media, business associations, and churches that forced the political elite to retreat from the brink. Over time, a growing middle class is likely to push back against the kind of big man politics that has characterized much of Africa since independence. For example, while Nigeria’s middle class has not reined in the country’s pervasive culture of corruption that effectively puts the government up for sale, the commercial hub Lagos and surrounding southwestern states have become an opposition stronghold for the reform-minded Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), eroding the ruling party’s monopoly on power. Likewise, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, which has dominated politics since Nelson Mandela’s historic inauguration in 1994, is also finally losing ground to opposition forces judging from last month’s municipal elections.

After a half century of violence, volatility, and suffering, major African countries may finally be on the road to a more sustainable political and economic future.

Philippe de Pontet and James Clinton Francis are analysts in Eurasia Group’s Africa practice

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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