The pain of inequality in Africa

The pain of inequality in Africa
  • PublishedAugust 7, 2014

Many wonder why, if Africa is growing, as the “Africa Rising” story claims, large numbers of Africans are still desperate to escape to Europe at great risk to their lives, writes Prof. Said Adejumobi.

The “Africa Rising” story is a tale that is being told virtually everywhere, and which even the Afro-sceptics are gradually coming to terms with.

However, at the same time, it is a story that has its dark side, such as the growing levels of economic inequality that have accompanied Africa’s “rise”.

Africa is the second-most inequitable region in the world, after Latin America. According to a 2012 publication of the African Development Bank, “inequalities have not diminished over time. In 2010, six out of the 10 most unequal countries worldwide were in sub-Saharan Africa, and more specifically in Southern Africa”.

While the rich are getting richer, the poor are wallowing in need, and the backlash of this trend may threaten not only the little progress our continent has made, but our collective sense of humanity and decency which defines Africa’s ubuntu philosophy – of community solidarity, care and responsibility that seeks expression in the phrase, “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”.

The benefits of economic growth have been skewed and disproportionately shared. A tiny group of less than 4% captures a large chunk of the income and wealth in Africa’s changing tide of capitalist progress. In this landscape, a nouveau niche has arisen, a transnational capitalist elite class who are the primary beneficiaries of Africa’s economic growth.

Out of Nigeria comes Africa’s richest person, Aliko Dangote; while in South Africa, as Ben Turok rightly noted in his latest book (With My Head Above the Parapet), the number of dollar millionaires grows. From 2007 to 2013, the numbers swelled by 14% from 2007 to 2013 even as the value of the South African rand depreciated markedly.

Addressing inequality can be a win-win situation both for the powerful and powerless in society. 

Africa’s bubbling white-collar middle class has not been left out in the growth trajectory. The new consumptionist culture in African cities, with the mushrooming of shopping malls and large supermarkets, suggests that purchasing power is increasing, if only for a small, yet important part of the population.

This is good news because without a national capitalist class, which in the Marxian parlance is referred to as a national bourgeoisie, and without a thriving middle class, neither capitalist transformation nor liberal democracy can be achieved or institutionalised.

But this is where the good story ends. Beyond this, the large majority of Africans are disconnected from whatever we call economic growth in our countries; they do not see it; they do not feel it; and they do not live it.

Many wonder that if Africa is growing, why are some Africans desperate to escape to Europe by sea, at great risk to their lives. To add insult to injury, some see the Western media reports of these desperate migrants as containing an element of sarcasm. If Africa is growing, one would have thought that the incentive would have been for its people to stay at home and contribute to its transformation.

If Africa is growing, why are conflicts escalating on the continent? In classical economic theory, growth is supposed to open up economic opportunities, stimulate economic and social empowerment, and thereby reduce tensions in society.

Conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Libya, and Nigeria remind us that Africa is not yet out of the woods. Those conflicts, though mostly context- specific, have varied reasons, which include the growing problem of deprivation.

Deprivation and inequality

Spatial, gender and income inequalities all coalesce to deny people their basic socio-economic rights and a stake in the system, which sometimes fuels political conflict.

The warped motive of the Boko Haram insurgency may not relate to inequality, but its combustive elements may be. Ignorance and deprivation are two factors that may have made it possible for the terrorist group to recruit young people to kill and maim their fellow citizens.

With good education and decent jobs available, Boko Haram might have been denied the young foot soldiers that it deploys in its heinous crimes.

In the CAR, Christians and Muslims who have lived together for generations in relative harmony are suddenly at each other’s throats as enemies. Scarcity, deprivation and inequality, the triplet sisters, breed hatred, anger and conflict amongst friends, brothers and communities.

The problem of inequality in Africa is not an unregistered one – many important groups have acknowledged it. The African Progress Panel led by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, in its 2013 report had this to say: “Some resource-rich countries have made impressive strides in improving the lives of their people. But overall progress has been uneven – and in some areas it has fallen short of expectations.

“After a decade of strong growth, several of Africa’s resource-rich countries remain at the bottom of the international league-table for human development. Others register some of the world’s largest inequalities in wealth and in wellbeing, as captured by indicators such as life expectancy and education”.

Africa displays an uneven pattern in terms of the scale, trend, sources and impact of economic inequality by countries and regions on the continent. For some countries that experienced settler colonialism, the problem is more deep-seated, with the legacy of segregation and group denial, lingering on.

For some other countries that made great strides at addressing the problem at independence with huge investments in the public goods of education, health, and other social services, however, the years of structural adjustment in the 1980s and 90s not only rolled back the gains made, but also instituted a new logic that made social policy irrelevant in economic decisions.

Underpinned by a Hobbesian logic of “fend for thyself”, the state sought an exit from the provision of public goods and social safety nets. The consequences were dire; poverty intensified, inequality deepened, and the strong and powerful trampled on the weak in society.

Africa’s growth pattern, driven by a commodity boom, provides only limited opportunities for employment and inclusive economic progress. It enriches the state, but does not transform the lives of the citizens.

Indeed, de-industrialisation is the flip side of Africa’s growth pattern as more cash-fuelled greedy imported appetites, of goods from China, Brazil, Singapore, South Korea and other new emerging economies.

In South Africa, the textile industry is struggling to breathe, let alone survive, as the country is awash with cheap clothes from other parts of the world.

The textile industry had long collapsed in many other parts of the continent in the late 1980s under “structural adjustment programmes”.

Cheap imports dwarf, if not destroy, local industries, export jobs, stunt diversification, and exacerbate poverty and inequality.

The global phenomenon

But let’s concede that inequality is now a global phenomenon, and that it is not only an African challenge. Other parts of the world are equally grappling with it. The Occupy Wall Street campaign is no different from the agitations of young people in Tunisia and Egypt or the service delivery protests in South Africa.

The difference is that given limited resources and opportunities, Africa’s capacity to absorb those shocks and the pain of inequality is limited, hence, it is more visible, with greater impact on the continent.

As global capitalism grows, it breeds its own discontents. Global capitalism, in its unabashed neo-liberal form, continues to appropriate and consolidate wealth for a few, and poverty for the rest. 

Capitalism, as Karl Marx once noted, is the most progressive social system ever invented by man, but it lacks a face, a conscience or a heart. It can be daring, ruthless and enslaving.

For it to recreate itself, it has to mitigate its negative consequences by expanding opportunities for the weak and powerless in society, showing care and affection to the vulnerable, and including everybody in its growth process, even while giving more to
some, than others.

This has been the strength of the Scandinavian model of capitalist development.

As Africa seeks to claim the 21st century, it must do more than the present. It should diversify its economies from commodity production to the industrial sector, and to small and medium scale industries that create jobs and add value to the production chain. The focus should be on unleashing creativity.

This should include the agro-allied sector and beneficiation in the natural resources industry. Training and skills development should also be attuned to the modern economy.

The educational system inherited from colonialism cannot keep pace with the drive and technology of the 21st century; it requires a drastic overhaul.

Finally, the state must take its rightful place not only in driving development by creating policies and regulatory regimes, it should be the force to mitigate poverty and inequality in society.

Inequality is not only an economic malaise; it is also a social and political liability to any society. If it is not tamed, it can consume whatever gains that the capitalist system might have accumulated.

Addressing inequality can be a win-win situation both for the powerful and powerless in society. It can create social harmony, mutual trust, and confidence between the haves and have-nots. It is a step towards a collective dream that another world – fairer and just – is possible and desirable for us all!

Prof. Adejumobi lives in Lusaka, Zambia. The views expressed here are personal and in no way represent the views or opinion of any organisation.

Written By
New African

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