The African Summer

The fires of democratic revolution won't spread south after the Arab Spring. And that's a good thing.

moussa sow/AFP/Getty Images
moussa sow/AFP/Getty Images

The sudden pace at which revolutionary fires swept across North Africa took the world by surprise: It was a hopeful Arab Spring for many. The rest of the continent, however, appears to be experiencing a long African Summer characterized by incremental democratic change and slow but steady economic growth.

True, there have been protests in a few African countries since the onset of the so-called Arab Spring, but the results have been mixed. Recent protests in Malawi and Senegal have been portrayed as signs that revolution might be catching on, but similar attempts in Zimbabwe were quickly suppressed and the country appears to have returned to its unsteady and oppressive state.

It is possible that sudden eruptions of rebellion could occur in other countries, such as Sudan, in ways that mirror some of the events in North Africa. What’s much more likely is that sub-Saharan Africa will go on as it has been, with a relatively revolution-proof mixture of slow democratic reforms and gradually rising economic prospects, a dual transformation that has kept its citizens just happy enough to avoid outright rebellion. Whatever the case, 2011 will be a record year for African elections, with some 28 national-level ballots; whether most are free or not — or herald real democratic transitions — is another question entirely.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic march started at a time when the continent’s economic prospects looked gloomy. The twin oil crises of the 1970s had played a key role in worsening macroeconomic balances in various countries. At the same time, demand for democratic reform began, when it became evident in many countries that post-independence promises of prosperity weren’t forthcoming. The rise in corruption and the spread of one-party rule triggered some of the early pro-democracy movements.

This was reinforced by the fall of the Berlin Wall, when many of the repressive regimes that thrived on Cold War allegiances became vulnerable to demands for greater democracy. The imposition of structural adjustment policies by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — though they required unfortunate cuts in public projects like infrastructure and social spending — also emphasized economic liberalization, the elimination of state monopolies, and the creation of a more open business environment. Countries such Tunisia and Kenya were among the first to adopt (under World Bank pressure) macroeconomic reform programs. But while Kenya embarked on incremental reforms, Tunisia dug in.

Over the next decade, however, one-party systems and political monopolies were eliminated across much of the continent. But the rise in multiparty politics was not accompanied by serious efforts to create accompanying democratic institutions. In the absence of modern political-party institutions and practices, many African countries reverted to ethnic alliances as vehicles for political mobilization, a pattern that directly caused many of the civil wars, post-election outbreaks of violence, and other uneasy power dynamics that we’ve seen since. And in fact, in countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe, the struggle for democracy in the absence of modern party institutions has only helped reignite long-simmering ethnic grievances.

In other words, sub-Saharan Africa’s struggle to bring about democracy is already at the center of the political arena, and external influence — the Arab Spring, for example — is less relevant or useful when it comes to reinforcing that process.

Nowhere has popular faith in incremental democratic change been as evident as in Kenya. Despite episodes of violence, the majority of the people continue to have faith in constitutional reform. In fact, the post-election violence in 2008 was fanned by the failure of efforts to craft a new constitution. Today, Kenya’s democratic march has resulted in a new constitutional order as well as discernible economic growth. Not everyone has benefited from it; income disparities have widened. But this has not dampened popular aspirations for a brighter, more democratic future.

In Kenya as elsewhere on the continent, new industries like money transfer and mobile banking have given people hope that a more liberal environment might expand economic opportunities. Political and economic freedoms feed off one another to reinforce the general sense that incremental change is working. And the dramatic, negative impact of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence on the economy may also have served as a reminder that radical political change comes with some serious upfront costs.

Simply put, Africa doesn’t need revolution to grow. According to the African Economic Outlook 2011, the continent’s economy is projected to expand 3.7 percent in 2011 and 5.8 percent in 2012, overall figures that conceal rapid economic renewal in countries such as Ethiopia, Congo, and Zambia.

The most important source of stability, both economic and political, will come from Africa’s concerted efforts to promote regional integration — offering a powerful alternative to the ethnic splintering that has often paralyzed countries. This is being pursued through regional economic communities, of which eight have been recognized by the African Union as the building blocks for continental integration. Africa is pushing regional economic and trade integration even further by starting to merge existing regional bodies into larger free trade areas.

Recently, for example, three such bodies (the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the East African Community, and the Southern African Development Community) came together into a Cape-to-Cairo Grand Free Trade Area. This will cover 27 countries with a population of about 700 million and a combined GDP of $1 trillion.

But to achieve the aspirations of the grand trade area, the member states will have to significantly invest in infrastructure, including energy, transportation, water, and telecommunications. It is estimated that Africa will need to invest nearly $50 billion a year for the next decade. If made, these investments will lay the basis for future growth and provide short-term employment benefits. More importantly, such investments will send positive signals about the future, which in turn will influence perceptions about political stability.

The prospect of joining larger economic trade areas already seems to be influencing the way countries resolve long-standing internal conflicts and embark on democratic transitions. In Burundi, for example, a decades-long civil war fueled by ethnic tension has been ended in part due to the country’s aspirations to join an emerging East African Community (EAC) and embark on a new path of economic reconstruction. South Sudan, which has its own internal conflicts, plans to join the EAC as well, hopefully a move that will have a positive influence on political conduct in the new country.

No doubt there will yet be violent episodes along sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic march, many of them offshoots of internal processes that have been under way for decades. But unlike the Arab Spring, associated with sudden political shifts that have engulfed old institutions, a slow-burning African Summer will remain a dominant feature of the continent — and it’s a good thing, too.

Calestous Juma is professor of the practice of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa.