Democracy Lab

African Growing Pains

Africa is poised for economic growth. But it won't all be smooth sailing.

OK, I get it. Africa isn't a country. It's an impossibly huge, complicated, and turbulent region of the world. There is no one "Africa." There are 54 nations with distinct histories and possibly divergent prospects.

So sue me: I want to write about the continent's future.

I've just returned from a visit to Mali, a former French colony that's twice the size of Texas (though home to only 15 million people), and the trip has given me a lot of food for thought. Yes, Mali isn't typical of Africa -- no more than any African country is. But the trip did prompt me to think about what lies ahead. Most importantly, it gave me a vivid snapshot of the opportunities that many Africans now see before them -- as well as some of the dangers that lie along the way.

Mali is poor. It's one of the poorest countries in Africa, in fact. In 2012, it recorded per capita gross domestic product of around $1,100, which puts it at 214 (out of 229) in the global rankings. It has little in the way of natural resources (except for a bit of gold, which accounts for the lion's share of its exports).

And yet it can also be seen as a place of considerable promise. From 1996 to 2010 Mali experienced economic growth of about 5 percent per year, buoyed by domestic political stability and strong prices for the commodities it exports. Unfortunately, the years that followed were marred by a full-fledged rebellion that temporarily split off the north from the rest of Mali, followed by a military coup in the capital that suspended the country's hard-won democratic institutions for a while. (Mali has been an electoral democracy, with several peaceful transfers of power to new governments, since 1991.)

Last year, the French army intervened to suppress the revolt in the north, smashing the nascent state that Tuareg separatists and their jihadi allies were trying to build there. A few months later Malians elected a new civilian government, hopefully putting the nation back on course. If they can make it stick, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to start achieving growth again. (That presupposes, of course, that they can figure out a way to placate the Tuaregs who still nurse grievances against the central government.)

If Mali can return to relative economic health, that will put it in line with a continent that is increasingly leaving behind its old image as a place condemned to eternal poverty. Growth rates in a number of African countries are reaching impressive levels, potentially setting the stage for a race to the top that could transform the fates of billions.

Much of that growth will come from rural Africans moving to the cities, a historic shift, already under way, that will boost productivity, spur the growth of a middle class, and fuel the creation of modern economies. That will repeat a pattern already experienced in many other parts of the world, but in Africa, judging by current trends, the process is going to be even more dramatic (and, judging by megacities like Lagos, potentially more chaotic, too.)

This is something that you can witness first hand in Mali. The capital city of Bamako, population 2.1 million, barely existed a quarter of century ago; since then it has been described by some as the fastest growing city in Africa. The positive side of the change is embodied by the well-dressed, upwardly mobile Bamakoites who clog rush hour with their Chinese-made motor scooters. The less appetizing side is that many of these new city dwellers (even from the budding middle class) inhabit homes that have limited access to running water, proper sewage, or other aspects of modern infrastructure.

Turbocharged urbanization isn't the only demographic trend that will change the face of Mali and Africa. The United Nations estimates that, by 2050, Africa's population as a whole will more than double, bringing the continent's total to 2.4 billion. Mali's is likely to triple by the same year, bringing it to 45 million. Even as things stand currently, the bulk of Africa's population consists of young people -- a trend that will intensify as even more Africans are born in the decades to come.

Needless to say, this astonishing population boom -- which is set to take place during a period when most of the other countries in the world, including China, will see declines in population growth -- also has its pluses and minuses. All these new Africans will obviously ratchet up pressure on resources. (In Mali, you can already see enormous swaths of once densely forested countryside that have been ravaged by villagers who count on firewood as their only source of energy.) The growing youth bulge will challenge economies that already have trouble finding enough jobs for their young people. But there's also the chance that the newcomers can create a demographic dividend, boosting entrepreneurship and creativity.

Mali shows you just what a complicated mixture all this makes. Cities, as Bamako exemplifies, are engines of economic growth -- but they're also dizzying, confusing, potentially alienating places, especially for kids torn from the placid, predictable routines of the countryside. For this reason, cities have long played a role as crucibles of political radicalization -- especially when there aren't enough jobs to go around.

In pre-revolutionary Iran, urbanization also contributed to a renewed embrace of religion, often with a radical twist. Mali, a country with a tradition of tolerant, Sufi-infused Islam, has recently registered notable growth in more rigorous, imported versions of the faith. One Islamic notable I visited in Bamako complained to me that ultraconservative salafis, generously financed by Saudi Arabia, now control three radio stations and other media outlets in the capital, while the traditionalists have none.

Politicians I spoke with attributed the appeal of salafi teachings to young people's discontent with corruption and inequality. It's striking that the one place where I saw large numbers of young women wearing hijab was at the University of Bamako. To some younger Malians, it would seem, conservative Islam offers just the kind of discipline, certainty, and stability that they can't find in their roiling suroundings. The fact that it also smacks of rebellion against the older generation probably doesn't hurt, either.

And yes, I know that most Africans aren't Muslims. But that's not the point. The point is that young idealists will seek political and religious alternatives, sometimes radical ones, when life in the cities falls short of expectations. The explosive growth of Pentecostalism in other parts of Africa probably draws on similar sources, though in its case the effects are, thankfully, mostly benign.

Growth and urbanization can also aggravate regional divides. Most of Mali's economic activity is concentrated in Bamako and other cities in the country's south-central region, so it comes as little surprise that they also claim most of the benefits. Drive a few hundred miles to the north, though, and the paved roads and the power lines soon evaporate. By all means, let's hope that the country finds its way back to a healthier economy -- but only if the politicians in the capital can figure out how to share the wealth more equitably with all of its regions. Otherwise the spirit of rebellion that nearly destroyed the country in the last two years will flare up again.

These examples are worth keeping in mind for the rest of Africa, too. While the promise of growth is to be welcomed, politicians should start today with policies -- especially in education -- to ensure that everyone gets a piece of the pie. The approaching demographic and economic revolution on the continent will shake things up in a big way. One thing is for sure: it's going to be a wild ride. Fasten your seatbelts.

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

In 2014, It's Not Just About the Ballot Box

The year ahead will tell us a lot about the state of democracy around the world. But voting is just one part of the story.

I recently returned from a two-week trip to the West African country of Mali. It was my first visit to the place, and it was a remarkable experience. I was deeply impressed by the resilience and fortitude of a people who live in one of the poorest places on earth, and who are also justifiably proud of their success at maintaining an electoral democracy over the past two and a half decades. Among other things, I watched some of them vote in the last round of this year's parliamentary election -- quite an achievement after two years of turmoil, including a separatist rebellion in the north and a military coup that eliminated democratic government for a time.

One observation that's still bouncing around in my head comes from my meeting with Moussa Mara, a member of the government who's also the head of a nascent political party. When you chat with folks in Bamako, Mali's capital, you hear lots of disgruntled talk about the problems of the "political class." Most of that complaining is clearly justified. The people who tend to get elected to high office in Mali generally come from a small circle of a few dozen well-established families. The ruling elite is deeply corrupt, and those who challenge its authority are often co-opted into its ranks with promises of a share in the loot. (The rather benign-sounding term for this is "consensus politics.")

When I spoke with Moussa in his tidy office in a spiffy, Libyan-built government complex in the center of the capital, he spoke at great length about how his country's young people are disillusioned with the pace of change. We talked about the problem of corruption and how it can be fought. We discussed the problems of development in a country where many people still don't have enough food, schooling, or protection from infectious disease.

But then he surprised me: "The biggest problem of democracy is the absence of the Malian citizen." The people of his country, he said, are still hobbled by lack of education, the everyday struggle for survival, and alienation from the political process. Many of them still vote, but many of those who do aren't sure whom they're voting for or why. "I want to see citizens become more active," Moussa told me. "I want to see them demand more of their leaders."

I don't think Moussa was selling me a line. He's right: You can have all the elections you want, but they won't be worth the paper the ballots are printed on unless you have a citizenry that actually wants democracy. Yes, Malians are voting again. But back in March 2012, when disgruntled army officers chased the president out of office (and ultimately into exile), no one in the country took to the streets to support their elected government. Instead there was one big collective yawn. How strong is Malian democracy if its people don't really care about its fate?

I suspect that Mali will be in the back of my mind this year as we watch for the next indications of democratic change around the world. 2014 is already being billed as the "biggest year for democracy ever" by the Economist, which notes that 40 percent of the world's population will be voting in national elections. Bangladeshis have just voted; still to come are the people of Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Turkey, Brazil, and the United States (along with several other less populous countries). That's a lot of ballots. But how much will the results tell us about the actual state of democracy in these countries?

They'll certainly reveal something. Elections are the bedrock of any genuine democracy; it's hard to imagine a democracy that's run by leaders who weren't chosen by their own people. But elections aren't enough on their own, either.

First of all, the quality of elections matters. There are plenty of tyrannies (see: Hitler, Stalin) that used votes to create the appearance of popular legitimacy. "Soft" authoritarian states often use elections as alibis for continued rule. (Last week's election in the putative democracy of Bangladesh, for example, certainly doesn't suggest that the leaders of the country's ruling party, the Awami League, were keen on allowing genuine political competition: members of the opposition party have now gone into hiding, apparently to evade the fate of the 18 people killed during election-related violence.)

Second, elections aren't an end unto themselves. They're supposed to result in transparent, accountable, and effective government. If they don't, it's likely that trouble is on the way somewhere down the road.

If elections aren't the only ingredient in the democratic recipe, what are the others? Democracy is scarcely viable in the absence of genuinely democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, relatively free media, and organized groups that reflect the varied needs and interests of community (that mysterious beast known as "civil society"). And you probably won't have sufficiently strong institutions unless there's a critical mass of engaged citizenry who are willing to fight for them.

There it is again, that word "citizen." In Egypt, three elections are set to take place in 2014 -- all of them under the sheltering hand of a vicious new military government that has dismissed all members of the Muslim Brotherhood as "terrorists." For the military, members of the Islamist party almost don't count as Egyptian citizens. When Mohamed Morsi and his fellow Muslim Brothers were on top, though, their actions suggested that they viewed Egyptians above all through the lens of faith: those who didn't share the religious ideas of the Brotherhood were left virtually without a say in the construction of the new, post-revolutionary state. Being a citizen was less important than being a believer.

Egypt isn't the only Muslim country facing potentially turbulent elections this year. Turkey, which is experiencing intense political instability thanks to last year's surprising protest movement and the current corruption scandal engulfing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist government, is preparing for what is likely to be a highly contentious national poll in August. Afghanistan's continuing ethnic and religious divides can actually make matters worse when expressed at the ballot box. But we can also expect to see a lot of tension when Thais head off to pick their leaders early next month. Thailand, too, is a country deeply split by religious and class identities (majority Buddhists versus minority Muslims, northern supporters of populist ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra versus Bangkok-centered elites). Bridging those gulfs will be crucial to the fate of democracy there.

It's in the places where citizens are prepared to mobilize, and to work actively to claim and realize their own rights, where the prospects for democracy are best. This week, Tunisian representatives are voting on a new constitution -- a process that, with the right outcome, could finally lead to a happy ending for the country that started off the Arab Spring. And despite the chaos enveloping the country, Libyans are still showing a remarkable willingness to take to the streets in protest against their leaders, to form civic organizations, and to continue open debates about their nation's course.

The big surprises for democracy will come in the places where citizens manage to mobilize effectively despite the odds. I doubt very much that 2014 will see a triumph of democratic culture in Russia or China. But I wouldn't be completely astonished to see dramatic change in Sudan, where bouts of unrest over the past two years have shaken the rule of President Omar al-Bashir. That's the funny thing about democracy: It has a knack for breaking out where you least expect it.

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