Africa’s rising rage: the middle classes call for revolution – By Richard Dowden

I had not intended to come back to the Africa Rising debate for a while. But on my recent trip to Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda I was shocked at how angry the young professionals are. These are highly educated, ambitious young men and women who could be found working in the corporate sector anywhere in the world. They should be taking Africa to the Promised Land. Instead I found them frustrated and furious with many calling for coups and revolutions.

Coming from London where we had been basking in a warm bath of Afro-optimism, I had expected to find a similar feeling in Africa itself. Growth has remained strong despite the economic problems in Europe, Africa’s biggest trading partner, and the prices for the continent’s abundant commodities have remained high. Governance is said to be improving.

There is no doubt that Africa has come a very long way from where it was in the 1980s and 90s. My prime piece of evidence for that is traffic jams. At that time you could drive into Nairobi, Kampala or Johannesburg at any hour and rarely be held up by anything except a red light. Now you have to leave hours earlier to be sure of getting into the city centre on time. Outside the towns and cities you can now actually drive in a straight line on many roads. As they used to say of the potholes in Uganda: “if you see a man driving in a straight line you know he must be drunk.”

But the questions about Africa’s dozen years of strong economic growth remain:

Firstly, has Africa’s growth been driven by a long commodity boom or is it now self-sustaining? Where is the large scale manufacturing?

Secondly, has governance really improved? Are the figures about numbers in school, clinics being built, power, water and sanitation delivered true?

Thirdly, are there two Africas? One in a bubble of western-style wealth inhabited by the rich and powerful and another Africa on the other side of the security fence – barefoot, one torn shirt, no money, no prospect of a job – “suffering and smiling” as Fela Kuti sang, but with big and increasingly angry eyes.

What shocked me in Lagos, Uganda and Nairobi was the fury of the young middle classes – the very people who are supposed to driving the new Africa into the 21st century. They were angry about the poor levels of education, about the lack of electricity, but above all about corruption at the very top. And they see the growing ranks of ill-educated, unemployable young people being churned out of badly-managed state education systems.

In Nigeria they have all but  given up on the government. But what about people like Lamido Sanusi, the Governor of the Central Bank, and Nkonjo Iweala, the Finance Minister? I pleaded. Their reply was: of course they do what they can but their space is limited. They are not allowed anywhere near the real money – the oil. That, I was told, was managed in complete secrecy by President Goodluck Jonathan and the Vice President and the oil minister, Ms Diesani Alison-Madueke. They are filling a huge war chest so that Jonathan can run for president again in 2015.

Two remarks struck me. One was how utterly out of touch the President is. When street protests broke out a year ago in reaction to the sudden removal of the fuel subsidy, he claimed that people were being paid to demonstrate. My informant pointed out that all the evidence was that people had reacted in spontaneous fury to the government’s removal of the only benefit it delivers to the Nigerian people. Yes, the only one.

One said: “I am extremely optimistic about the future of Nigeria – once there has been a revolution and the current ruling elite is removed”. No one in the room showed dissent or even surprise.

In Uganda the entire middle class – except for those in government – realize that the country is heading for a crash or a coup. Even President Yoweri Museveni himself warned that if his own ruling party does not stop bickering the army may step in. That is the most extraordinary statement I have ever heard from an African president. The reaction of many Ugandans (under their breath) was: “bring it on”.

Museveni has stayed too long and he has cultivated no obvious successor. He is trapped, talking now about installing his deeply unpopular wife and or his son in his place. 27 years ago he did a good job and ruled well (except in the north) and this lasted for a decade. But now he has turned into the very president he criticized so severely as a young man – the one who stays too long in power.

Meanwhile, in Nairobi the population is battening down the hatches for the election next month. Most are optimistic that their new constitution will curtail the worst excesses of the professional politicians, although these people still made up about 80 percent of the winners in the recent party primaries.

So where exactly is The New Africa flourishing? Botswana? But it was always successful and never suffered from the political and economic catastrophes that hit Africa in the 20th century.

The fact is that the five big African countries: Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo are in political turmoil or stasis. None of their governments have the vision or the capacity to position their countries to develop rapidly and sustainably as Indonesia, Malaysia and China have. The good things that are happening in many African countries – with the possible exception of South Africa – are happening in spite of their governments, not because of them.

Secondly, two of the most successful countries in terms of human development – Ethiopia and Rwanda – are dictatorships which allow minimum democracy and freedom of speech. This makes it difficult for Western governments to support them. Aid has been cut to Rwanda and if the next election in Ethiopia is not free and transparent, Western allies and donors may have to turn a blind eye or step away.

Some countries are doing reasonably well: Ghana, Senegal, Namibia and Zambia are OK. Cameroon and Gabon are quiet but not dynamic, still run by small wealthy elites who do not spread the new wealth. Cote d’Ivoire has emerged from its civil war and Somalia may bounce back quickly if the new government is strong enough to crush al-Shabaab and smart enough to manage clan politics. But meanwhile Mali, a former favourite of western countries, has imploded and both Sudans are in an increasingly bad way. It is hard to imagine Mauritania, Niger and Chad will not also be affected by Islamic militancy.

China has been the main player in Africa’s economic transformation, but how long will it be before Africans react against the growing power and exclusive behaviour of the Chinese and their total disregard for Africa’s environment and culture?

Africa rising? Bits of it yes, but watch out for Africans’ rising anger.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.

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16 thoughts on “Africa’s rising rage: the middle classes call for revolution – By Richard Dowden

  1. I encourage Richard Dowden to spend more time with Africans who live in Africa as opposed to “Africa Rising” type diaspora conferences in London or the US.

    If you live in Africa, a lot of this is pretty obvious and has been for very long.

    Secondly, African leaders don’t care very much about the Middle Class. They know they are not in it for the long run – if it gets too hot, they will immigrate (as they did in the 80’s). In the meantime, aid money will still flow & they will work on manipulating the masses by whipping up tribal sentiments.

  2. It is good to see this kind of posting, but I have wondered with growing incredulity as organisations such as WB, European Governments have been ‘bigging up’ an economic success story in Africa why so many in UK who know Africa have kept so silent.
    The realities of each country in Africa are complex and contradictory but the realities of poor education, rising youth unemployment, brutal conflict in many countries, volatility in others including across the N African ‘Arab spring’ countries reaching into the Sahel, the rolling back of rights for women in those same areas and more are there for all to see. Yet, as so often, donors and other ‘opinion leaders’ have been spinning a story of success, democracy and economic growth (as seen in earlier days with their stories of glowing success in Uganda and Ethiopia). Narrow targets are defined and held up to show what is changing for the better while the reality of the wider contexts often appear to be conveniently glossed over.
    How many more times are the narratives generated by international donor and aid agencies going to be so out of step with what people feel and experience in their own countries and how often are they going to go largely uncontested by those who can get their voices heard at international debates, but choose to stay quiet? Thanks for raising this now Richard.

  3. Thanks for the article Richard, I agree with Tina & Chike, this ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is grating. Those at home are angry because they have no place at the table and those of us in the diaspora are angry because we are equally powerless to challenge the narrative. ‘Africa Rising’ is being discussed by the same guys who regurgitated the ‘Dark Continent’ narrative, very few if any Africans are participating in these discussions in a meaningful way. “Tu balaba- we see you”

  4. This is an article that has raised some points about Africa but not all. Richard, do people like you speak in international conferences so we can have people with divergent views about Africa. Our leaders lie to donor agencies with growth just to get aids. If the GDP of African countries is growing as propagated by these leaders; is it reflected on the citizens? These are questions begging for answers. Thank you Richard.

  5. Important piece, but am a bit confused about the Ethiopia bits: first, how exactly is Ethiopia not one of the “big five” countries? Population of Angola = 20 million; population of Ethiopia = 90 million… Also, “difficult for Western governments to support”? Does that include Susan Rice?

    I agree that there’s more to the Ethiopian “renaissance” story than meets the eye, but the ingredients – dominant party (Hailemariam is hardly a “dictator”), Asian investors, heavy-handed developmentalism – are much to central to the debate on Africa at large to be sidelined in that way.

  6. Put simply, economic growth often correlates with increased economic inequality, particularly in circumstances of poor democratic accountability (not just in Africa).

    Economic growth since the mid-2000s has however changed the terms of the debate. In the 1980s and 1990s, when most African economies were basket cases and policy-making was dominated by donors and IFIs, widespread anger had nowhere to go. Now, there is some income to fight over, but its distribution – whether it ends up in politicians’ pockets or developmental investment – is of course a question of the extent of democratic accountability on the ground (usually completely unrelated to the absurd binaries of African disaster or miracle presented in western media and by donors).

    Populist politicians, like Michael Sata in Zambia, provide some articulation of the rising anger that Richard so accurately describes, but once in office do little or nothing to address its underlying causes. But I think there is potential, in the majority of African countries that are relatively more democratic (freer assembly, freer speech, more independent media using indigenous languages etc) for the angry middle classes (and the wider poor) to articulate alternatives, in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible 10 or 20 years ago. So, rising anger, bring it on!

  7. Africa is rising. Young African professionals are angry at the failing government leaders and corruption. BUT these same angry people are not just sitting on their arms, venting in anger. They are sweating, working smart and hard, to ensure come tomorrow they too can rise, liberate others, and sustain Africa’s shine.

  8. I am a novice to Africa, but having spent a few weeks in Port Harcourt to take the temperature of the place, and this is very similar to what I found. Of course, the dirt poor have every reason to be angry, but I was suprised at the level of anger amongst the relatively affluent. The astonishing incompetence of the rich Nigerians I encountered, combined with the conviction that the upwardly rising youth are banging their heads against the glass ceiling of capital availability and access to government projects was the primary cause. I presumed it was ever thus, but it makes sense that this is a growing issue.

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  10. Mr. Richard Dowden, thank you for this great piece, the world needs to know how TERRIBLE the situation is like out here. Like you remark about the situation in Uganda, all we can say is let there be more anger, let it move from the hearts to the faces, from streets into the Government Houses and the Barracks!”Bring it On!”

  11. In Africa the middle class is not as an important factor as it is in Europe for instance. In terms of numbers the middle class is small in Africa and by and large it is dependent on government and very little on private sector.Lastly the stakes are very high in African politics and the middle class has a lot to lose. African rulers are aware of these facts and largely ignore few voices of descent from the middle class and occasionally deal very harshly with anything that goes too far.

  12. I’m not too surprised. The middle class have the education and global exposure to understand where they are in the global pecking order. Even though conditions are improving, there’s still a lot of work to do. I am a little surprised to here calls for revolution and radical change. Usually it’s the middle class who would prefer Ghana-like orderly change vs Cote d’Ivoire-like upheaval. We may be closer to a tipping point than I’ve realized.

  13. I have worked in kenya for over 10 years on and off and the year of 2006 marked a huge difference in things in Kenya especially in Nairobi.

    The middle classes have expanded, jobs are present and graduate schemes, sponsorships and work is there for university students. The banking sector has grown and bonuses are high. Foreigners are coming in by the droves and the UN are increasing their workforce but alas they tend to bring in foreigners not use the locals who have got good experience and education.

    I dont deny it is competitive to get a job in kenya and a good job but is it easy to get a good job in the uk or europe?

    The constitution has made a change and the foreign investment has brought in further opportunities but Kenyans are entrepreneurial and they like to earn their keep from more then one job no matter how high up the ladder they go.

    The middle class has grown not only due to good education but also due to land prices increasing.

    Remember kenya is a big place but the population of Nairobi is concentrated so of course like any big city it is competitive. Civil servant jobs are being watched and cut as they should be and corruption is decreasing as the professionals take over the country. It is a good kenya as far as i can see.

  14. Ok. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. It is amazingly ironic to read the deftness of all the satirical political mumbo jumbo and then read the willful ignorance of even the most basic economic principles. Africa’s problem was, is and will continue to be money, or more specifically a lack of sound money. Fractional reserve banking, deficit spending and fiat money is what crippled Africa. This issue remains the proverbial Achilles heel for all of Africa.

    Former colonial powers never set Africa on a path for economic or financial independence. Neocolonial powers are using the same tricks all over again to maintain hegemony. All of the outside investment from China is to shore up their exponentially growing energy needs, not becaue they genuinely care about the future of Africa. All smoke and mirrors on their part!

    At the time of his assassination, Qadaffi was working on a master plan for the entire continent and a true vision of Pan-Africanism. A return to sound money backed by gold. And no longer accepting the US dollar as payment for oil and other commodoties, effectively abandoning the Bretton Woods agreement. This was a radical departure from the old Keynesianism that raped Africa, and the true reason he and Saddam Hussein were murdered. The true reason for the mounting pressure against Chavez, Ahmadinejad, and Assad.

    A return to gold is the only logical step for all African countries to lift themselves out of nightmarish poverty that has existed for what it seems like an eternity now. Ludwig Von Mises has given African economists a plan for its econonic salvation and it can no longer be ignored. The entire continent groans for Austrian school economics.

  15. Until African economies move away from simply extracting and selling natural resources to value-added and self-sustaining economic activities, they can not be said to be rising or developing. When the resources run out we will be worse off than we ever were.

    In Africa we export crude oil and import petrol and diesel. We export cocoa and import chocolates. We export all sorts of metals and import cars & computers. How dare anyone say Africa is rising?

    Thanks for your articles Richard, I can only wish they were more frequent.

  16. Richard you are spot on, the power hungry dictators that have eaten up their so called revolutions. The likes of M7 keep playing ping pong with the population, in the case of Uganda; M7 has promoted policies that have kept the common man so poor to have an opinion!make them poor so they can’t fight me, that is his way of thinking. I mean his gov’t introduced UPE(Univesal Primary Education), all it does is to churn out half baked students!His Tax collection body (URA) keeps taxing the poor and the rich (his stooges) keep dodging the taxes and he protects them (in the name of patronage), the electricity body (UMEME) keeps on hiking tariffs without improvement in service delivery not to forget the recent commissioned bujagali dam that is but a concrete structure producing way less than they promised that it would (who builds dams in parallel using the same water source!!). As a by the way, it is rumoured that he has shares in all these companies!
    I would go on and on, in short Uganda is a failed state with almost 90% unemployed university graduates! its a shame

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