Africa Brief
From Algeria to Zimbabwe and countries in between, a weekly roundup of essential news and analysis from Africa. Delivered Wednesday.

The Problem With Comparing Africa to Asia

Greater ethnic diversity, debt burdens, and democratized politics have complicated Africa’s path to development.

Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
A man passes billboards of Nigerian films at a movie theater in Lagos on Feb. 19, 2019.
A man passes billboards of Nigerian films at a movie theater in Lagos on Feb. 19, 2019.
A man passes billboards of Nigerian films at a movie theater in Lagos on Feb. 19, 2019. Cristina Aldehuela/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Ethiopia’s government cracks down in Amhara state, a massacre in Burkina Faso, and Nigeria delays its census.

Can Africa Replicate Asia’s Success?

I was recently asked at a talk for The China in Africa Podcast why African countries could not carbon-copy China’s economic development. As Wade Shepard noted in Forbes in 2019: “It is not lost on many African leaders that hardly 30 years ago China was in a similar place that they are now—a backwater country whose economy made up hardly two percent of global GDP.”

It is a question analysts continue to revisit. More than two decades ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof arrived at the erroneous conclusion that African countries were simply more corrupt than their Asian counterparts—an argument he has repeated more recently. But economically successful countries such as Thailand and Indonesia also have high levels of corruption, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

In 2020, Noah Smith wrote an op-ed in Bloomberg under the headline “What Africa Needs Now Is Its Own Singapore.” Smith noted “Southeast Asia was once almost completely colonized by European powers, and much of it was devastated by a series of wars and internal strife in the mid-20th century … But in the 2010s, growth accelerated all across the region.”

And earlier this year, Howard W. French argued in Foreign Policy that Nigeria’s incoming government should emulate the reforms of post-1980s China to tackle myriad systemic economic problems.

But comparing large African countries such as Nigeria to China is not straightforward. That’s because greater ethnic divisions, debt burdens, and democratized politics have complicated Africa’s path to development. Authoritarian governance and a more homogenous population have made it easier for China to progress.

Asia does have a similar legacy of European colonialism, significant populations living in absolute poverty, and high levels of corruption. Yet, in a single generation, China has raised the wealth of its citizens by becoming a manufacturing powerhouse able to capitalize on cheap labor but also by investing in education and health.

The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, established just north of Hong Kong in 1980, has today attracted more than $30 billion worth of foreign investments. China progressed from subsistence farming to garment manufacturing and up the value chain focusing on electronics. Some African countries, including Nigeria and Ethiopia, have attempted this model.

Ethiopia, which is following this path and is soon to become the third-largest African economy, had been able to leverage U.S. preferential trade mechanisms, such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and the development of special economic zones to attract clothing manufacturers from Spain, China, and the United States. But the civil war that broke out in 2020 scuppered its rise.

It has been attempting to win back the U.S. trade agreement following its peace deal with Tigray. Around two-thirds of Ethiopia’s apparel exports had gone to the United States, and suspension from duty-free access saw firms shift location back to Asia. But that shift could be reversed as Ethiopia’s lower wages offer a competitive advantage over Bangladesh and China.

In 2001, when Nigeria opened its first free trade zone, north of the port of Calabar in Cross River State, the results were unimpressive. Despite having a large domestic manufacturing industry, it couldn’t attract the level of investment needed for export. Since 2011, foreign inflows of investment to Nigeria have dropped from $8.8 billion in 2011 to just $3.3 billion in 2021.

Nigeria has repeatedly sought to diversify its economy away from resource extraction since independence. But as a large multiethnic society, Nigerian leaders are seemingly paralyzed within the divide-and-conquer method of governance inherited from colonial power Britain.

Today, Nigerian leaders use the same ethnic, religious, and cultural divisions that once aided colonization as a means to win elections. President-elect Bola Tinubu’s recent election win was marred in religious and xenophobic anti-Igbo rhetoric across the country against Labour Party candidate Peter Obi, who is Igbo. This has hindered the government’s ability to implement radical development plans.

Film and music are Nigeria’s biggest non-oil exports, but these sectors operate outside government oversight and help. In 2016, Nigerian lawmaker Abdulmumin Jibrin managed to secure $1 million in federal government investment into Kanywood, the country’s Hausa-language film industry. But the Nigerian government quickly dropped funding after a backlash from politically influential religious leaders against a movie industry that supposedly encouraged “immorality.”

As Zainab Usman, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Africa Program, writes in her book Economic Diversification in Nigeria, “an ambitious million-dollar plan to elevate Nigeria’s Hausa movie industry was savagely derailed by a vocal minority.”

Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups, but none is dominant. The largest group—the Hausa—makes up just 30 percent of the population, the second-largest—the Yoruba—only 15 percent. Even China, a large polyglot society composed of around 56 ethnic groups, has a 91 percent Han Chinese population. And 97 percent of Singapore’s 5 million people come from just three ethnic groups—Chinese, Malay, and Indian. Singapore has managed to prevent ethnic divisions through mandatory ethnic quotas, which could work for Nigeria.

But China is a single-party state and Singapore a de facto one-party state, meaning political or ethnic minorities have little say in development measures. By contrast, community opposition often arises in Nigeria along ethnic and religious lines—problems that Chinese and Singaporean officials don’t generally wrestle with. The methods China has used to suppress ethnic differences such as in Tibet and Xinjiang are not ones that African countries should ever seek to emulate.

Higher risk perceptions have led to higher debt burdens compared with Asian countries, such as Myanmar, that also have security crises. Nigeria’s security crisis led to a dearth of foreign investors in the country. “What is really debilitating to foreign direct investment of the type that can drive industrialization is urban crime, criminal gangs, which are now very widespread,” Usman told Foreign Policy.

The lack of FDI has curbed electricity and road builds. And “without steady, reliable electricity, Nigeria is going to go nowhere,” Usman said.

The success of China has also allowed its neighbors better access to export markets and FDI, explained Ovigwe Eguegu, a China-Africa policy analyst at Development Reimagined. Francophone Africa’s neocolonial relationship with France has created structural issues very different from Asian countries. It “hasn’t really allowed [African nations] the agency and flexibility to control their affairs,” Eguegu said.

Mali, the Central African Republic, Niger, and Burkina Faso—countries using the French-backed CFA franc currency—are all in the bottom 10 of the U.N. Human Development Index. Deeply unpopular regimes are kept in power through aid and military engagement from global powers: for example, French and U.S. support of Chad’s military leader, Mahamat Déby. Coups inevitably disrupt progress.

European proximity and abundant mineral resources have enabled “aid convoys, and all manner of plunder masquerading as goodwill,” Vik Sohonie argues in Africa Is a Country. “The streets of Bangkok and Hanoi are lined with Toyotas and tourists, not wide-eyed youths in armored vehicles guided by white burden.”

Africa is riddled with an unaccountable aid industry that holds back the development of “robust public systems,” he writes. Western government aid in particular is more focused on achieving preferential resource deals such as those offered by Britain and France. “$40 billion more illicitly flows out of Africa than incoming loans and aid combined,” Sohonie notes.

The comparison with China is ultimately flawed. “The appeal of China is also the appeal of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia to some extent. The idea that development can be top-down,” said Ebenezer Obadare, an Africa scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. In other words, “that you need a soft authoritarian,” he added. “The anxiety that is producing the reasoning is legitimate, and that anxiety is this: African countries have not picked up in terms of economic development. People see the disconnect between the potential of the continent and the reality on the ground.”

Experts are deciding, “given how difficult it has been for democracy to put down roots in many African countries,” that “maybe we really shouldn’t bother,” Obadare said. Yet Afrobarometer polls show that Africans want more democracy, not less.

Furthermore, countries such as Morocco are charting their own course. Rabat has rapidly accelerated electrification through renewable energy reforms. This has allowed Morocco to accelerate manufacturing of vaccines, electric vehicles, and batteries, which has resulted in increased private investment flows. Since 2018, Morocco has surpassed South Africa as the biggest African exporter of passenger cars. Rabat’s efforts prove that Africa doesn’t need to be Asia to carve out economic success, but African countries must instead find a way to solve their own unique set of problems.

The Week Ahead

Wednesday, May 3, to Thursday, May 4: Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Burak Akcapar continues a visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in a trip that began Monday.

Thursday, May 4: The European Union Foreign Affairs Council, in its development configuration, will meet to discuss Sudan.

Thursday, May 4, to Friday, May 5: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits Ethiopia and Kenya.

Thursday, May 11: Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema and African Continental Free Trade Area Secretary-General Wamkele Mene are set to speak at the Africa Debate conference in London.

What We’re Watching

Ethiopia arrests. Ethiopian authorities said on Sunday that they had detained 47 people, including prominent journalists and campaigners, for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government in the regional state of Amhara. The arrests are in relation to the fatal shooting of Girma Yeshitila, the head of the ruling Prosperity Party in Amhara, and his bodyguards.

Ethiopia’s Joint Security and Intelligence Task Force said the suspects had been found in possession of weapons, bombs, and satellite communications equipment, according to a statement published by state-run broadcaster EBC. But some of the alleged culprits identified by Ethiopian security and intelligence agents had already been jailed before the killings, according to the BBC. Violent protests erupted in Amhara last month after the federal government announced the dissolution of regional paramilitary forces that had been fighting in Tigray.

Burkina Faso atrocities mount. Residents in the northern town of Karma say at least 136 people, including women and babies, were killed on April 20 by armed men wearing the country’s military uniforms. The alleged atrocities came just weeks after The Associated Press published an investigation into the filmed killing of teenagers by Burkinabe soldiers.

The country’s military government is under pressure to reclaim large swaths of territory controlled by armed insurgents but in doing so has launched large-scale offensives that residents say often target innocent civilians. “We, [the] population and survivors of the events of Karma and surroundings, have no doubt that it is the security and defense forces that are responsible for this carnage,” a representative for the residents said at a media briefing in Ouahigouya, near Karma. There is no suggestion that Russian mercenaries are involved.

Sudan clashes continue. The United Nations has warned that Sudan is at a humanitarian “breaking point.”

“The regional spillover effect of the crisis is a serious concern,” Abdou Dieng, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Sudan, told a briefing of member states via video link. Sudan’s army and rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces agreed to extend what had been a largely ignored truce for an additional 72 hours starting Monday. As of Tuesday, more than 500 people had been killed and 4,500 wounded as a result of fighting between Sudan’s rival generals—both of whom have powerful foreign backers. According to the UN, more than 100,000 people have fled Sudan.

This Week in Tech

Nigeria’s failed census. Nigeria has once again postponed a census due to take place this week, and a new date will be set by the incoming government of President-elect Bola Tinubu, who is slated to be sworn in at the end of May. It is the second postponement of a census originally planned to begin March 29. Estimations on Nigeria’s population are anywhere between 215 million and 225 million people, but many Nigerians believe a United Nations forecast that Nigeria could overtake the United States as the world’s third-largest country by 2050 are off the mark because the country hasn’t had a credible census in almost 20 years. The last count took place in 2006, when the population was just 140 million.

Zimbabwe’s gold-backed currency. Zimbabwe’s government will launch a digital currency that is backed by gold reserves and can be transferred between people and businesses as a form of payment, the country’s central bank said on Friday. In April, the U.S. dollar replaced the Zimbabwean dollar for a second time as the most-used currency in the country. It has also previously used the South African rand.

Hyperinflation and a strong dollar have depreciated the Zimbabwean dollar, pushing up the price of imported goods. The new tokens “will be fully backed by physical gold held by the bank” and will go into circulation on May 8, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gov. John Mangudya said.

FP’s Most Read This Week

What We’re Reading

EU-funded toxic pesticides. An investigation by Gideon Sarpong and Jonathan Moens in iWatch Africa details the use of the pesticide paraquat, banned in Europe, in farms in Ghana within projects funded by European development banks. As part of a rubber plantation project, designed to assist small farmers in rural Ghana, the French public development bank AFD funded the export of toxic pesticides to nearly 9,000 farmers.

According to iWatchAfrica, other banks funding projects that involve the use of EU-banned pesticides include the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corp., the private sector arm of the World Bank.

Zimbabwe’s state capture. According to an investigation by the Sentry, a controversial South African businessman paid millions of dollars to high-ranking Zimbabwean politicians to secure lucrative concessions for his companies.

Leaked documents detail how Zunaid Moti allegedly paid $3 million to firms linked to Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga following a complex $120 million deal in November 2017. The deal, signed during the middle of the weeklong coup that brought Mnangagwa and Chiwenga to power, concerned the Moti-owned African Chrome Fields, a chrome mining company based in Zimbabwe.

Cash also allegedly flowed to obscure companies linked to other prominent Zimbabwean politicians. Moti has denied the allegations, saying that the Sentry report was based on “stolen documents fed to media by a former employee with criminal connections.”

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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