Africa’s 21st Century

Calls of this century being an “African Century” are premature. But several long term disruptions are likely to change Africa’s ancient dynamics. This article covers four significant changes for Africa, with historical background. At the end, we’ll explore what these seismic shifts could mean for the continent going forward.

4: Africa’s Population Boom

The growth of Africa’s population has garnered headlines, some good and some bad. And while everyone sees that Africa’s population boom is significant, it’s never compared to Africa’s historical trend.

For most of its history Africa was incredibly underpopulated. The graph above explains: up until the 1970s Africa had a lower population than Western Europe. Remember, Africa is about three times the size of all of Europe. Meaning that until recently, the entire continent of Africa, the world’s second largest, had a smaller population than a few parts of the world’s second smallest continent. This is a testament to Africa’s incredibly harsh terrain that has historically limited agriculture, and thus population growth. A limited population limits all aspects of society -urbanization, military strength, technological advancement, etc.

The reasons behind Africa’s sudden population boom are debated, though a combination of New World crops and Western medicines are usually considered factors. That Africa’s external slave trades were curtailed in the late 1800s also helped improve Africa’s demographic position.

Regardless of the reasons, Africa’s population explosion is nothing short of astounding. Unfortunately Africa’s institutions -influenced by millennia of low population and distorted by colonialism- have so far not been able to adapt, and many Africans are unable to find work and live in a state of insecurity.

“At the beginning of the Christian era the population of China has been estimated at 57 million people, the Roman Empire 54 million, and Africa only 20 million, half of whole resided in North Africa and the Nile Valley… Thus there were only 10 million Africans living south of the Sahara Desert. Five hundred years later, in 1900, the population of sub-Saharan Africa had soared to 129 million, but during the same centuries the world population had risen from 500 million to over 2 billion.” -A History of Sub-Saharan Africa, Chapter 3, Page 40.

3. The Conquest of Distance

Africa’s rough topography meant that travel and trade were expensive compared to other places. It’s rivers, filled with waterfalls and cataracts, were not good for long-distance trade. It’s deserts and jungles acted as barriers that made only the most valuable of goods -gold, salt, slaves- worth the cost of transport. And Africa’s shores lack natural harbors, limiting its opportunities for oceangoing trade.

It was Europe that brought mechanized transport to Africa through the railroad and steamship. These tools made the exploitation of Africa cheaper than ever before, and Europe wasted no time in driving exploitation costs further down through forced labor and other repressive policies. Still, the seeds were sown, and by the time Europe mostly retreated from the continent in the 1960s, a few railways were established.

The railways built by the European empires were built to connect Africa’s interiors to its coasts (excepting the denser network in South Africa), and did not facilitate trade between African countries. These railways would end up degrading during the 1970s-1990s, when war and economic collapse ruined Africa’s infrastructure. Since then however, African states have taken the lead in beating back the barriers of geography.

East African states in particular have been aggressively developing their rail networks.

Where the shores have historically been a hindrance to trade, African states like Angola have launched projects to build ports from scratch. The East African countries in particular have been in a race to build railroads that reach deep into the interior and to each other. And several states have established state-owned airline companies to facilitate travel across the vast continent and the world.

The development of infrastructure across Africa will, eventually, enable the continent to overcome many of the geographic constraints that have held it back for centuries. However, these projects are dependent on both stability and outside investors, both of which can go at sudden notice.

2. The Harnessing of the Diaspora

Africa has lost tens of millions of people to the centuries-long Arab and Transatlantic Slave Trades, a large number made more disastrous by Africa’s small population. Historically, when these people left Africa they were gone for good. One person lost to the slave trade was one less farmer to till the soil, one less blacksmith to produce goods, one less soldier to fill the ranks. Conversely, the party at the other end of sale gained a productive worker that would only strengthen their economy. Thus the slave trade impacted Africa doubly, by weakening the continent and strengthening outside forces, forces that would one day conquer the continent itself.

The numbers do not include the Arab Slave Trade or the numbers of people who died in route to the African coasts or during transit along the Atlantic. It also does not include those who died in the wars fought to obtain captives. Historians debate the total body count, but the Slave Trade was without doubt a economic and human catastrophe, especially for such an underpopulated continent.

During the latter half of the 20th century Africa faced another demographic disaster. As war and economic failure consumed the continent, many of its best and brightest fled to Europe and North America, depriving Africa of the skilled labor necessary for a modern economy.

However a silver lining has appeared. Africa’s Second Diaspora (the post-slave trade diaspora) has done very well for itself abroad. In the United States they are among the most educated groups, with college graduation rates surpassing that of native-born whites by a factor of two. These immigrants have the education and capital to contribute to their homelands in a substantial way, and Africa has realized this fact. Many states are reaching out to their diasporas, and the African Union itself has recognized the diaspora as its sixth region. Africa's First Diaspora (created by the slave trade) also fits into this, however the relations between them and the continent are more complex, and will be the topic of a future article. Still, the revolutions in communications, travel, and capital flow has made it easier than ever for both sides to engage with one another.

For the first time in its history Africa is able to harness the millions of its people abroad for its own development; a source of capital and technical skills with less strings attached than traditional NGO/foreign government sources. Africa’s ability to attract its diaspora back to the continent (including but not solely physically) will determine Africa’s success this century.

1. The Growing African Military-Industrial Complex

Given Africa’s tumultuous history these past few decades, it would seem that the last thing Africa needs is a growing arms industry. However, a state without a monopoly on violence will not be a state for long, and for many hundreds of years Africa’s states have found it impossible to establish this monopoly.

Richard J. Reid in his book Warfare in African History theorized (and I’m grossly oversimplifying) that African war was a war of fortified centers and mobile frontiers. The center was a hierarchical state or state-like society, the frontier usually being more nomadic. The center and frontier were in constant conflict, but due to the vast rugged landscape and low populations, the center could never completely subjugate the frontier in the way the U.S. conquered the west or that Russia overwhelmed Siberia. Instead the center would usually overstretch and collapse, or the frontier would conquer the center, in the process creating new frontiers to fight against, and the cycle would continue.

The entrance of horses and especially guns accelerated this cycle but did not give any side a decisive edge because, according to Reid, Africa did not control the trade or production of these new weapons. Because they were imported from the outside, anyone could acquire them, and because anyone could acquire them no one could gain a decisive advantage. Worse, because outsiders (ie. Europeans) controlled the production and sale, they were able to determine the terms of trade and who they traded to. Once African polities started to import guns in mass (usually for slaves, see point #3), they had basically outsourced their defense to Europe. Just before the Scramble for Africa, Europe stopped gun sales altogether, fatally weakening Africa’s polities just before conquest.

After decolonization Africa was able to import weaponry again, but this time the Americans and Soviets controlled the terms of sale. In a sense nothing had really changed since the Scramble for Africa, except the weapons were more advanced. The Americans and Soviets could make and unmake African states by selling or blocking arms sales, as witnessed most clearly in the Ogaden War. Warlords could easily acquire the firepower to challenge the state by cozying up to one of the superpowers. The wars between the center and frontier continued.

The development of a domestic arms industry is vital for any African state to lessen its dependence on foreign actors and control its frontiers. A few African states are taking steps to build domestic arms production. Unfortunately by its nature this is not a peaceful phenomena. Nigerian auto maker Innoson has several contracts with the military for vehicles and airplane parts to fight Boko Haram. Sudan, the state that has sponsored terrorism across Africa, also has one of the largest defense industries on the continent. Ethiopia, an expansionist state with grudges against Eritrea and Somalia, has been building its own arms industry for at least a decade. By far the country with the largest defense industry is South Africa, and though the country has been peaceful since the end of apartheid, its economic interests in unstable southern Africa might one day, in the eyes of Pretoria, require protection.

The growth of Africa’s military-industrial complex will allow its states more freedom to act in their own interests, without fear of arms embargos. However, those interests aren’t always peaceful.

Sudan’s Military Industry Corporation has a continental reach.

How Africa’s 21st Century May Take Shape

Africa is undergoing a slow revolution. In the span of a century it will have overturned many of the geopolitical constraints it has labored under. But getting there will not be pretty. African states have yet to adapt to the population boom, and to feed so many people will likely require more food imports, exasperating capital scarcity. The continent will still largely depend on unstable commodity prices, though Africa may be exporting more of them as infrastructure projects come online. Any increased commodity exports will be unlikely to make up for the demographic growth, however.

Because of this, it’s likely that many African states will encourage its people to migrate, directly or indirectly. Already, remittances provide more capital for the continent than foreign aid, and African states have taken note. Encouraging migration will reduce population pressure, secure remittances/investment, and even possibly establish lobbying influence in the host country. The latter is a long term scenario and would require more coordination than Africa and its diaspora have at the moment. The host countries may or may not take steps to block migration, though some of those steps will be in Africa’s interest. This creates the possibility of using migration as a foreign policy tool.

As Africa’s road and rail networks improve, the center will have a historically unprecedented ability to project power both in its own interior and towards other states. Combined with the development of local weapons manufacturing, and its probable that Africa will see an increase in interstate wars, as countries can both better equip their forces and get around arms embargos. This comes at the moment that many African states are seeking new markets in unstable regions, particularly the EAC states. At the same time, there may be a decline in intrastate warfare as the center, thanks to improved infrastructure and communications, is better able to impose its will on the frontier. The acquisition of weaponry that insurgents can not acquire themselves, such as air weaponry, may further this trend. This trend would only be apparent in states that can attract funding for infrastructure and weapons development -isolated landlocked states like those in the Sahel or Central Africa will largely be left out.

Because Africa cannot fund its own infrastructure projects, and because its population growth is faster than job creation, capital will remain scare, trapping Africa in a cycle of high-indebtedness for the foreseeable future, with some variance depending on commodity prices. This dependency on foreign investment will leave Africa open to foreign influence, as it has for centuries, though a few African states will gain enough strength to acquire dependencies of their own on the continent. The diaspora will lessen the stranglehold foreign capital will have on the continent but will not be able to counter it for many years.

Taken as a whole, the 21st Century is likely to see a decrease in foreign influence across the continent and an increase in African influence, mostly on the continent but possibly abroad through lobbying efforts. As African states militarize, improve infrastructure, and tap their diaspora networks for capital, many will find themselves able to project power and influence. The ability to attract capital from abroad will be the main driver of these trends; should capital sources dry up or become disrupted Africa’s development will slow dramatically.

Africa’s 21st Century will be difficult, and it will not be an “African Century” necessarily, but this is the century that the African giant is beginning to stir.