Growing Poverty May Push Arab Spring Into Africa


Across the Middle East and North Africa, superficial political calm has been shattered by convulsions of rage. Idealistic young protesters have toppled some of the most ruthless and well-resourced political strongmen on the planet. In sub-Saharan Africa, many are asking: “Will the Arab Spring spread south?”

Thus far, the authoritarian leaders who dominate the continent have withstood protests, stubbornly maintaining that tribalism will save them. They and their loyal supporters insist that African societies are so fragmented along ethnic, sectarian and regional lines that it would be impossible today to whip up the perfect Tahrir Square storm; instead, they believe, an outcome like Libya’s civil war or the messy departure of Yemen’s president is more likely.

And yet many of the underlying realities are the same. As food and fuel prices rise, inflation is driving millions of Africans below the poverty line just when the world’s great aggregators of economic data have been preaching the opposite: that growth will benefit all. Radical and growing economic inequality animated much of what was at stake in the various Arab uprisings, and it will play a major role in shaping African politics for years to come.

The Tunisian street vendor who set himself afire was not so different from the disaffected young men of Nairobi’s and Kampala’s slums. They are Africa’s overwhelming majority: poor, marginalised and angry about corruption and soaring food and fuel prices. It is those young men and women who endure the daily humiliations of poverty, struggling to find jobs as elites crow about “growth” and an African renaissance.

But the much-vaunted middle class remains a tiny sliver of the population in most African countries – one that is largely dependent on state patronage for its survival. Africa’s middle class has grown in recent years, but its members are politically and economically vulnerable and their lives can be overturned by the whims of elites who rule instead of govern.

Meanwhile, the poor are assaulted daily by the potent symbols of rising inequality: glitzy malls filled with designer goods and status-enhancing baubles that cost 10 times the monthly minimum wage. Jealousy of ill-gotten gains is particularly acute among members of the giant youth bulge across Africa and the Middle East – in Kenya, for example, more than 78 percent of the population is younger than 34, and that population is growing at 1 million a year.

Their resentment is only heightened by the tools of the information age, which remind them that they have been excluded from feeding at the trough enjoyed so blatantly by the nouveau riche – a lifestyle that is showcased by the newly minted wealthy on television, Twitter, Facebook and the Web in infuriating detail. Globalisation has changed the aspirations of the poor, and their expectations will follow.

Indeed, it is resentment of the president’s son’s Ferrari, more than envy of Europe and America’s comparative wealth, that is driving young Africans into the streets to challenge their kleptocratic governments. If the Arab revolutions have taught us anything, it is that inequality and perceptions of inequality within poor countries have now replaced poverty as the Number one development challenge facing the world. And consequently, the struggle to mitigate inequality, rather than “making poverty history” through debt relief has become the most urgent task. Narrowing wealth disparities within nations rather than among them is now paramount.

The world has seen a dramatic decline in global poverty over the past decade. The total number of poor people around the world fell to less than 900 million in 2010 from more than 1.3 billion in 2005 – most of them in China. Although the Chinese Communist Party celebrates the nation’s economic progress, it also recognises that growth has been far from evenly distributed. The latest Chinese development plan specifically confronts inequality and attempts to mitigate it. African leaders have yet to catch on, and consequently inequality has been left to fester.

Across the world, as growth has spread and accelerated, so has inequality. It is clear that growth is often not enough to guarantee stable, cohesive societies. Rather than create a rising tide that lifts all boats, it can actually increase inequality in a society. And inequality, unlike poverty, is far more easily politicised, ethnicised and militarised, especially in African countries with heterogeneous populations and weak judicial and regulatory institutions. It is also far more combustible because it creates an identifiable enemy – a class that benefits disproportionately because of its unfair access to those who wield power. Mismanaging it can be catastrophic.

Steady economic growth and urbanisation, combined with high levels of youth unemployment and conspicuous consumption on the part of the corrupt ruling elite, create a situation in which growth exacerbates political volatility instead of quelling it. China, with its highly centralised system of economic management and ruthlessly efficient security machine, has been able to keep a lid on the contradictions thus far.

But as African countries grow, despite the unevenly shared benefits of that growth, the expectations of the poor and the aspiring middle class will continue to advance – aided by social media – and both groups will only become more angry and predisposed to protest as they perceive the stark inequalities surrounding them.

That is what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. It is no coincidence that five Arab countries – including Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – were among the top 10 listed in the U.N. Development Report’s assessment of progress last year. Their advances were largely due to decades of improvements in health and education. Indeed, in 1970, according to research by Mwangi Kimenyi of the Brookings Institution, life expectancy in Tunisia was lower than in Congo – and there were fewer children in school in Morocco than in Malawi.

The Arab Spring occurred at a moment when economic development had outpaced political development in much of the region; ossified political systems no longer satisfied a population yearning for modern freedoms. The explosive democratisation in the Arab world, therefore, is a result of development’s success, not its failure. An authoritarian country cannot grow itself out of its fundamental underlying political contradictions. Eventually, a democratic deficit sets in.

A country can experience economic growth and get all the hardware of governance right (education, health, infrastructure, sanitation) while getting all the software wrong (basic freedoms, leadership, mitigating inequalities, addressing the youths’ demands). Eventually the system crashes. We’ve seen it in North Africa and the Middle East. And Kenya’s postelection meltdown in 2007-’08 came on the heels of a five-year economic boom. It was also a period of particularly parochial and backward politics, which laid the groundwork for violent polarisation along ethnic lines.

Improved macroeconomic management, higher commodity prices and a generally positive economic trajectory since the late 1990s could spare sub-Saharan Africa from the spasms erupting throughout the Arab world. But this growth is taking place in a region where the capacity to create jobs in the formal sector has been woefully inadequate; and antediluvian elites have mastered the manipulation of ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional differences to maintain their grip on power. Their rule has turned systemic inequalities and, more important, perceptions of inequality, into potent triggers for violence.

The supreme irony of the Arab Spring is that the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and other countries have, in their alarmed reaction to events in North Africa, helped bring the revolution south, at least as an idea. In Kenya, youth groups agitating against soaring commodity prices include “revolution” in their names and slogans. In Uganda, opposition attempts to hold demonstrations against spiraling food prices as well as a mass “walk to work” protest have been met with irrationally disproportionate violence that reveals the deep fears of the country’s leaders. And last week, Malawi’s police killed at least 18 anti-regime protesters.

By 2025, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to a quarter of the world’s people under the age of 24, and their anger is growing. For Africa’s youths, many of them educated and unemployed, the future seemingly holds no hope under the current arrangement. Speak to them of GDP growth and their reactions are visceral. “The economy is growing for whom?” they ask. “Not for us!” For now, their demonstrations have been easily dispersed. But if their complaints merge with long-festering ethnic and regional grievances, that could lead to a far more volatile uprising.

The idea of revolution has arrived, among the minority of youths with access to social media but also among the masses via the poor man’s Facebook: FM radio. And their geriatric presidents and prime ministers are nervous.

John Githongo is chief executive of Inuka Kenya Trust and chairman of the Africa Institute for Governing With Integrity. He was Kenya’s permanent secretary for governance and ethics from 2003 to 2005.  

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