Africa in Transition

Youth from across Africa participate in a summit held at the Pan-African Parliament in Khartoum, Sudan. (Pan-African Parliament)

Africa’s new generation is at a potential turning point. The founding post-colonial generation of leaders is gradually leaving the scene either by electoral defeat, compulsory retirement, coups, or death. Young men and women are now faced with the question of whether they can bring about a new African polity based on the principles of democracy and human rights—to which continental and regional institutions are formally committed—or whether the politics of entrenched and often corrupt leaders who stayed in power for decades will continue, based on support from their majority ethnic base and passive acceptance by the international community. The choice of direction is to a large extent in the hands of Africa’s next generation.

A Look Back: From Independence to the OAU and AU

Over 60 years ago Ghana became the first African state to achieve formal independence, and there is no longer a colony on the African continent. Since 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and later the African Union (AU), achieved two major political goals: the end of colonialism and the end of apartheid. The former was the result of the liberation movement initiated by Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Ahmed Sékou Touré, and other African leaders. The end of apartheid was the result of the South African liberation struggle supported by United Nations sanctions and prolonged isolation from Africa’s mainstream.

Between 1963 and 2002, the OAU sought to strengthen African states, but it lacked binding authority over its members and was deprived of resources for more than the functioning of a minimal secretariat. When Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim wanted to fly to the Comoros to deal with a coup in 1978, for example, he had to borrow an airplane from one of his member countries. The OAU had neither the legal power nor financial capacity to forestall coups or prevent leaders from committing extensive human rights abuses, such as Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Indian population from Uganda.

The crises in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s, in which the international community proved unwilling to stop massive violence and the collapse of the state in the former and to prevent genocide in the latter, and the OAU lacked the means to react or respond, precipitated new thinking by Africa’s leaders.

The transformation of the OAU in 2002 to the AU led to a major normative change. In a groundbreaking step, the AU’s Constitutive Act condemned genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Article 4H, preceding the UN’s similar decision three years later. It also enabled the AU to suspend the membership of states carrying out coups—far beyond what the UN General Assembly does. In earlier decades, regional institutions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) were established with the intention of linking continental and regional decision-making. These efforts, however, have remained embryonic. The existence of too many regional institutions with overlapping memberships had created competition for finances and attention, resulting in limited decision-making capacity.

Ongoing Challenges

While achieving some success, the AU has struggled to meet challenges. For example, after more than a decade, efforts to establish a continental African Standby Force (ASF) to respond to crises have made halting progress. The ASF has been hampered by lack of a shared vision and commitment, differences among member states as to the ASF’s security objectives, political and linguistic obstacles blocking an integrated African force structure, as well as insufficient external financial, logistical, and operational support. Another important challenge is financing. The AU has pledged to finance 25 percent of the cost of its peace operations, but has not met this goal.

The AU has also had limited success in dealing with the cross-border terrorist actions of al-Shabaab in East Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa, as well as other insurgencies such as the Lord’s Resistance Army. Porous borders have also permitted transnational organized crime to flourish, facilitated by international criminal networks to which there has been weak regional and international response. While the UN and the AU have committed themselves to major reform initiatives such as adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the concept of sustaining peace embodied in the High-Level Implementation Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) and the Advisory Group of Experts on Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture, these initiatives remain in the realm of aspiration, rather than operational reality.

Is Africa at a Turning Point?

Some of the continent’s most egregious leaders—who have used their rule to benefit themselves and their families while leaving the great majority of their people in poverty—have recently been forced to step aside either by the military or by a wave of popular discontent. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, in power for 37 years, has been succeeded by his former Vice President and enforcer Ernest Mnangagwa. Angola’s new president, João Lourenço, is making swift moves to wrest power from his predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos, pushing out some of his key allies and vowing to combat monopolies controlled by a family that has run the country for four decades. The African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa decided that Cyril Ramaphosa will head the party ticket in 2019. It is widely expected that the ANC will remain the major governing party.

How much of a difference these leadership changes will make remains to be seen.  Youth movements have begun to precipitate change in recent years, for example in Senegal where the Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) movement fought to prevent former President Abdoulaye Wade from seeking a third term, or in Burkina Faso where the Le Balai Citoyen (Civic Broom) movement contributed to Blaise Compaoré leaving power. At the same time, a number of leaders remain in power indefinitely with support from their ethnic bases and international passivity and acquiescence, notwithstanding the AU’s formal commitment to democratic elections and good governance. Most notable in this regard are President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi who is now in his third term, President Paul Biya of Cameroon who has been in power since November 1982, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who has been in power since January 1986, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda who won more than 99 percent of the vote in the 2017 election, and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea who has been in power since 1979.

The Next Generation

Some African countries are making progress to a more peaceful future. The UN Security Council is closing peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, judged to be sufficiently well-organized under democratically elected governments. Senegal, Botswana, and Tanzania have recently held successful peaceful democratic elections. There is a vibrant private sector in many African countries, including South Africa and Kenya, that have diversified their economic base and reduced their dependence on the export of minerals to China and Europe. But there is also considerable uncertainty about what will happen if the broader global economy declines or goes into recession.

Ultimately Africa’s future will be in the hands of its post-Cold War generation. An increasing number of young Africans are obtaining higher level education in Africa or abroad, remaining in or returning to their countries, and choosing to pursue professional careers in academia, local government, and civil society organizations. Funmi Olonisakin, founding director of the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London, told me in 2016 that 97 out of 100 recent graduates returned to Africa. Many work at the African Union, in regional or national governments, or in the private sector.

Importantly the post-Cold War generation will enjoy fuller lives, having largely escaped the HIV catastrophe of the 1990s. Life expectancy has improved to 60 years, although still relatively lower than in Europe. Public attitudes have changed with the widespread acceptance that HIV-AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease that can be properly treated by anti-retroviral drugs. The cost of these drugs has also been significantly lowered. More still needs to be done, however, to improve life expectancy by upgrading health systems, finding ways to keep more of doctors and nurses in Africa, and providing the technology and infrastructure to sustain modern hospitals and clinics.

The question remains: will Africa’s youth and women be able to bring about a new polity based on the principles of democracy and human rights or will it continue to be constrained by the politics of entrenched corrupt leaders? The great majority of African youth want a better future for their families and children, where their governments are held accountable, based on free and fair elections, allowing for alternation of power and where public resources are used in the interest of their populations. Whether these goals can be achieved will have tremendous implications on Africa’s future. It is to a large extent up to the next generation to transform Africa into a continent of prosperity and well-being for all.

John Hirsch is a Senior Adviser at IPI and a former US ambassador to Sierra Leone.